Progress in behavioral health is in the hands of legislators

By Sheila Schuster, PhD

The new year and a new Kentucky General Assembly session are off to a busy—and promising—start for behavioral health. We have seen a larger number of behavioral health bills filed in this legislative session than ever before.

Mental Health First Aid

Rep. Kim Moser’s HB 153 boosts Mental Health First Aid, an evidence-based education program geared toward first responders, school personnel and the general public. It has been likened to CPR, where the individual is trained to recognize the signs of distress and to know how to respond to get help for the individual. The bill also establishes a state trust from which grants could be given for training and courses. The bill unanimously passed the House and is in the Senate.

SB 1 Update

The School Safety and Resiliency Act was passed as SB 1 in the 2019 General Assembly session, but unfortunately, did not include licensed mental health professionals as part of the trauma-informed schools which are the focus of the legislation.

SB 8, filed by Sen. Max Wise, has corrected that oversight and now lists all licensed mental health practitioners as being part of the school team. A recent change in Medicaid reimbursement may provide a reimbursement source for mental health services, if the state’s budget is not able to provide funding.

Conversion Therapy

Two companion bills—HB 199 filed by Rep. Lisa Willner and SB 85 filed by Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr—take on the dangerous and often deadly practice of conversion therapy aimed at convincing youngsters that they are not gay.

This is not evidence-based and has been universally condemned by every national mental health professional organization. This coercive, shame-based approach often results in suicide attempts, anxiety, depression and self-loathing among its young victims. Both bills to ban this practice are awaiting action in their respective chambers.

Eating Disorders Council

Eating disorders have long been ignored in Kentucky, with little to no treatment available in most communities, forcing families to send their loved ones to treatment out of state.

Compelling testimony by Melissa Cahill and her daughter, Meredith, inspired the filing of SB 82 by Sen. Julie Raque Adams. It establishes a multi-disciplinary clinical, advocacy and research council to make policy recommendations and provide public education. The bill passed the Senate unanimously and is headed to the House for action.

Homeless Youth

Access to mental health services is almost impossible for homeless youths because they do not have a parent or guardian to give permission. Rep. Joni Jenkins’ HB 213 would close this gap by giving these youths the ability to consent for behavioral health treatment on their own. The bill has passed the House and is in the Senate for consideration.

Severely Mentally Ill

The issues of the severely mentally ill in our state have often been neglected and rarely adequately funded. HCR 49, sponsored by Rep. Kim Moser, would create a task force to meet during the interim session to look at issues such as access to medications, lack of supported housing, crisis services, implementation of Tim’s Law and a host of other pressing needs. The resolution has unanimously passed the House and is in the Senate.

Compact States

Rep. Walker Thomas has introduced HB 110 to bring Kentucky into a compact with a growing number of states to make it easier for licensed psychologists to provide services across state lines in other compact states.

This would help increase the pool of psychological expertise for diagnostic testing and treatment in Kentucky, especially through telehealth in rural and underserved areas. The bill is awaiting action in the House.

Promising Budget

The Governor’s budget claims to have no cuts. This is great news to the behavioral health community, which has seen numerous budget cuts to programs over the past dozen years. The biggest budgetary concern is assuring that the community mental health centers (CMHCs) are sustained and kept out of bankruptcy due to skyrocketing pension costs.

The CMHCs, along with other quasi-governmental agencies, had their pension contribution frozen at 49 percent. This budget puts their pension contribution at 84 percent and would give them funding for part of that increase, leaving a shortfall for the CMHCs of $13-14M…which they have no way of paying.

HB 171 filed by Rep. Jim DuPlessis attempts to “find a way out” for CMHCs and other quasi agencies, but this is only a fix if full funding is in the final budget. Executive and legislative leadership must assure the sustainability of the state’s safety net behavioral health system!

Take Action

Follow the legislative action on KET and on the legislature’s web site and make your voice heard by calling your legislators and committee members at 1-800-372-7181!

-Sheila Schuster, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and executive director of the KY Mental Health Coalition.