COVID-19 Is Delaying Reforms To Colorado’s Mental Health System


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May 28, 2020

This week, the Insight with John Ferrugia team has new information on our January investigation, Breakdown, which examined Colorado’s mental health system. Our investigation found that untreated mental illness is overwhelming the state’s criminal justice system, and leaving many in a position where getting arrested is the only way to access mental health treatment.

Our documentary ended with the promise of reform from government leaders. But like many aspects of American life during this pandemic, these existing problems are getting worse because of the COVID-19 outbreak and the associated economic fallout.

When Governor Jared Polis took office last year, he established a behavioral health task force, and asked them to reform the state’s troubled mental health system.

Robert Werthwein, the state’s director of the Office of Behavioral Health, says the task force was motivated to make big changes — then COVID-19 struck.

Now, with the state budget in tatters, Werthwein says the short-term focus has shifted from overhauling the system to simply trying to preserve what is already in place.

“Any time we’re talking about reducing or not being able to evolve our services, it sets us back and it sets Coloradans back in getting the services they need. It’s gonna probably take a little longer for the vision that we have to help all Coloradans. I don’t know what that looks like exactly though at this time,” Werthwein said.

He said the task force has proposed using some federal opioid grants to help offset proposed cuts to jail-based mental health programs. The state will need to find other ways to cut costs and fill gaps left by the budget crisis.

“It means that we’re going to have to be creative in how we mitigate, and look at the best fiscal options that are available to us, telehealth being one of them, and do our best to mitigate as much as possible the impact of budget cuts and COVID,” Werthwein said.

There may already be a road map on how to cut some costs. Before the coronavirus hit, the state completed a fiscal analysis examining how the state’s mental health budget was being spent. Werthwein said the analysis identified several costly inefficiencies that put obstacles between Coloradans and the mental health care they need.

“I think there are ways for us to be more strategic across the state and work together more collaboratively so we can make a single dollar go further, which is more important now than ever before,” Werthwein said.

The behavioral health director said the people who shared their stories in Breakdown made a big impact on the task force and “re-energized” their work.

“Putting real faces and real names and real people struggling day in and day out through all the communities in Colorado … we cannot stop our work. And that’s why you feel me pushing a little bit. When we talk about budget, it’s going to have an impact. But for me, we can’t stop moving forward because there are real lives here,” Werthwein said.

This story is part of a collaboration with Rocky Mountain PBS through FRONTLINE’s Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

John Ferrugia, Rocky Mountain PBS

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