Opinion

LAMBERT | Sudden death of legislation was a setback for mental health care

Author: Kent Lambert - June 18, 2018 - Updated: June 25, 2018

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Kent Lambert

When a bill passes the statehouse with overwhelming bipartisan support, but is killed through the guile of a small minority that refuses to compromise and would rather see taxpayer dollars held hostage, we don’t need lectures from the saboteurs about how a mythical impasse resulted in the bill’s failure.

Yet, that is what has transpired since the death of SB18-252, which was intended to provide mental health services to sick Coloradans who are being held in jail, awaiting a bed at the over-capacity state mental health institute.

The fact is that a single term-limited senator engaged in a filibuster in the waning minutes of the 2018 legislative session to prohibit a vote, which blocked the clear bipartisan legislative intent to pass a solution requested and strongly supported by Gov. Hickenlooper. That doesn’t reflect a desire to negotiate in good faith. That’s an attitude of “my way or the highway,” which will continue the rancorous legal warfare that first got us into this mess.

Currently, the backlog for competency restorations at the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo (CMHIP) is tremendous. The 449 bed state facility is at capacity and daily has anywhere between 120-140 pre-trial detainees waiting for over 28 days to begin restoration services. Since 2000, Colorado has seen a 431 percent increase in demand for competency evaluations and a 930 percent increase in demand for restoration services.

This backlog is harmful to the waiting defendant, to individuals who need extensive services but can’t be admitted to CMHIP because of lack of capacity, and to taxpayers who foot the bill — it costs the state over $670 per day for restoration services at CMHIP. Many of the individuals waiting for admittance do not require an inpatient level of care and could be restored to competency in a more cost-effective and clinically appropriate setting, either in the community or through a jail-based outpatient program.

To explain this issue in terms of physical healthcare — it would be as if our healthcare system would only treat someone with a broken arm in an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and expected the taxpayers to pay the bill.

After working on this problem for over five years, we tried a new approach. Senate bills 249, 250, 251, and 252 were introduced by the Joint Budget Committee and members of the House and Senate Judiciary committees to substantially improve the delivery of mental health services. Three of those bills have already been signed by the governor, but the most important of the four, SB-252 was killed by Sen. Irene Aguilar, D-Denver, who deliberately prohibited the Senate from voting on its conference committee report. SB-252 would have applied almost $2 million to reform the process of competency determinations and treatments, and would have helped ensure that defendants are treated in the most appropriate setting.

Although SB-252 wasn’t perfect, it was a landmark bipartisan approach to address problems that the state might otherwise be fined for up to $50 million in federal court. The bill passed the Senate unanimously, passed the House 48-17, and was supported by Gov. Hickenlooper. Opposition came from Disability Law Colorado (DLC) and others who are interjecting themselves into the legislative process to block the solutions needed.

In a recent letter, DLC claimed, “we worked hard to find a compromise”, and, “… the parties came to an impasse […] that resulted in the bill’s failure.” These statements are complete distortions. Disability Law Colorado, the same group that is suing the state, is also working against a solution that would represent a good faith effort by the state.

The people of Colorado deserve and should expect better than this. Unfortunately, those who would have benefited from this legislation were used as pawns in a board game. We are hopeful that the courts will recognize that the state has attempted to solve a problem that has been building for years, and that those who blocked the legislation — possibly to their legal benefit — are part of the problem rather than the solution.

Kent Lambert

Kent Lambert

Kent Lambert, a Colorado Springs Republican, represents District 9 in the Colorado Senate and serves as vice chair of the bipartisan Joint Budget Committee.