The Legislature gave final passage Tuesday to three sweeping measures that would expand access and increase resources for children’s mental health, with some lawmakers calling it the defining issue of Connecticut’s 2022 legislative session.
The Senate approved House Bill 5001, a proposal that focuses on medical and community services. The House passed Senate Bill 1, which proposes resources for schools, and Senate Bill 2, which focuses on early childhood interventions. All three are now heading to the governor’s office for his signature.
The bills’ passage was a first step toward confronting what lawmakers and health care providers have called a growing crisis in Connecticut and elsewhere.
“There is a saying: Don’t waste a crisis. Connecticut has wasted one mental health crisis after another,” said Sen. Derek Slap, a Democrat from West Hartford. “Every time a child falls asleep in the emergency room in the hallway because there are no beds, it’s a crisis. Every time a child dies by suicide because they didn’t get the support and help they needed, that’s a crisis. Whenever children suffer in their rooms, do not go to school and do not function, it is a crisis. And it got worse.
“Our children have been suffering for a very, very long time and we are failing. … I think [these bills are] will shed some light on our children…give them some hope. This is the most important thing we are going to do in this legislative session.
During the pandemic, the number of children and adolescents waiting in emergency departments for inpatient psychiatric beds has increased. In February, for example, that number more than doubled in Connecticut — to 56, from 26, according to the Connecticut Hospital Association. An average of 38 children waited for care on any given day during this period. Of those 38, an average of 31 were between the ages of 13 and 17, and seven were 12 or younger.
Senate Speaker Pro Tem Martin Looney, D-New Haven, called the bills “major accomplishments of this session of the General Assembly.”
“It’s a mobilization and a recognition that this is an area that has been in crisis in our state for some time,” he said. “It has now, I think, finally reached the level of urgency, the public spotlight and the mobilization of this General Assembly to deal with it as we should.”
Each piece of legislation addresses different aspects of a larger problem.
House Bill 5001 includes 73 different sections with a multitude of programs and funding. This would make reciprocal licensing possible for out-of-state providers, especially those treating children. It would also establish a grant program for local and regional school boards to hire additional mental health specialists in schools and create a second grant program for school boards and youth camp operators to help cover mental health services for students.
Under the bill, some health plans would have to offer coverage for two mental health wellness exams per year by a licensed mental health provider and waive the requirement for prior authorization. The measure also requires the state’s health care advocate to designate an employee to manage juvenile-specific services and initiate a peer-to-peer mental health support program.
The proposal passed unanimously in the Senate with a 36-0 vote.
Senate Bill 1, that would bolster mental health programs in schools, raise the salaries of child care workers and create a scholarship fund for minority teachers, among other priorities, passed the House on Tuesday by a vote of 138 votes against 10.
The measure would set aside $10 million for grants to expand services at school health centers. It would also create a grant program to help school boards hire and retain social workers, nurses, psychologists and counselors in schools.
The bill would provide $70 million in wage enhancement grants for child care and early childhood education workers, and increase the number of spaces for infants and toddlers in child development centers across the state to 2,800 beds, up from 1,500.
Under the proposal, school boards would receive information on how to acquire opioid antagonists like Narcan at no cost, and school employees would be trained in its proper use and handling. The measure would allow pharmacists and prescribers to dispense Narcan to school boards and require schools to designate an employee to administer the drug in the event that a school nurse is unavailable.
The bill also directs the state Department of Education to devise strategies to streamline and improve pathways to teacher certification, and it would create a task force to address teacher shortage and teacher retention. $1 million would be set aside for a new scholarship program for minority teacher candidates.
The proposal would also launch a task force to help combat ableism, discrimination or social prejudice against people with disabilities in school settings.
Senate Bill 2, which includes 46 sections targeting a range of initiatives, cleared the House with a vote of 129-17. Sixteen Republicans and one Democrat opposed the measure. Rep. Catherine Abercrombie, D-Meriden, was the only Democrat to vote against.
The bill would expand access to mobile crisis centers across the state, making them available seven days a week, 24 hours a day. It would also create a fund to address the social determinants of mental health, factors – such as housing instability, lack of access to healthy food, poverty, racial discrimination, unemployment and adverse early life experiences – that influence a person’s mental health. Families struggling with these issues could apply for financial assistance.
The proposal would also require Connecticut’s public health commissioner to convene a task force to study recruitment and retention methods for psychiatric and behavioral care providers, the prospect of a loan forgiveness program for people who travel to the field and the effect of the health insurance landscape on limiting access to care, among other issues. The panel must report its findings to the state no later than January 1, 2024.
Under the bill, the state would partner with the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education to conduct a study on the impact of social media and cell phone use on student mental health. from kindergarten to 12th grade. The study will focus on children in primary school, middle school and high school. The authors will submit their report to the State by January 1, 2024.
During the House debate on Senate Bill 2, some Republicans took issue with different sections of the proposal. Rep. Gale Mastrofrancesco, R-Wolcott, questioned the value of using American Rescue Plan Act money to fund certain initiatives. The bills include financial support from the state’s general fund and ARPA money.
“I think things are a bit – I’ll be blunt, if I can – messed up,” she said. “We’ve come up with a plan…and we’re using ARPA money. Do we not think about the consequences when that money runs out? Aren’t we sitting here thinking that, you know what, in two years or a year from now we won’t have that funding? We will have to realize that. »
Supporters of the bills said ARPA money would be used to support short-term initiatives, while money from the general fund would cover longer-term programs. For example, ARPA funds could be used to purchase a mobile unit – a one-time cost – while the staff who run that unit would be paid from the general fund.
Others voiced support for the measure, calling it one of the key mental health bills of the session.
“It’s so critical that we continue to be a reminder that we have so many mental health needs with our students,” said Rep. Cristin McCarthy Vahey, D-Fairfield. “And this is a bill that tries to look at them and help in the best way possible. … I think it’s going to do a really good job.