CTNJ file photo
Kristina Stevens and Joette Katz of DCF testify in July (CTNJ file photo)

A draft plan released Friday afternoon by the Connecticut Department of Children and Families outlines how the state wants to move forward with improving children’s access to mental health services regardless of their insurance status.

The report, mandated by lawmakers in 2013 following the Newtown shooting, seeks to tackle the children’s mental health crisis and barriers to treatment. The report will be open for public comment until 5 p.m. on Sept. 12 and a final report will be submitted to the legislature in October.

Kristina Stevens, a DCF administrator, said the draft report was formed largely on the feedback the agency and its nonprofit partner, the Child Health and Development Institute, received during a series of forums held around the state in the spring.

The report says that as many as 20 percent of Connecticut’s children have mental health needs and would benefit from treatment, “yet many of these children are not able to access services.”

The report states that “a core finding from all input sources is that the children’s mental health services are fragmented, inefficient, and difficult to access for children and families.”

One of the boldest suggestions made by the draft report was the concept of pooling all the money for children’s mental health services from the public and private sectors in order to break down what amount to “silos” of funding for specific children. On the public funding side, a variety of agencies have funding for children’s mental health services, but they don’t necessarily work together to ensure a more even level of services.

Timothy Marshall, a clinical manager with DCF, estimated that there’s $300 to $400 million in the public sector alone. It’s unclear how much money may be available in commercial health insurance or in the employer-sponsored insurance market. The report doesn’t detail exactly how the funding sources would be pooled, but Jeff Vanderploeg, vice president for mental health initiatives at the Child Health and Development Institute, said it would happen over time.

“We acknowledge the fact that the system in and of itself has a rich array of services and funding streams, but they are in various places,” Stevens said.

She said they heard from families that what their child has priority access to depended on what particular group, organization, or insurance carrier they had. One of the goals of the report is to try to break down those barriers even if it doesn’t go into too much detail about how that will happen.

Number of insured children in the state

“I think the heavy lift is going to be around data and workforce development training,” Department of Children and Families Commissioner Joette Katz said. “Then finally sharing — breaking down some of the rules around confidentiality so that providers can speak to one another” so that schools and pediatricians can talk about children and their care.

She said the whole point of the report is to make it easier for families to get care for their children before situations become emergencies.

“That means families feel they can get the care they need regardless of what door they walk through,” Katz said.

At the moment, families are showing up at emergency rooms because they have nowhere else to go. At the same time, DCF has closed hundreds of group homes and congregate care beds. The agency said the spike in emergency room visits is part of a national trend, but hospital officials believe there’s a correlation.

Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, who has been frustrated the agency’s refusal to accept responsibility for the lengthy emergency room stays children with mental health issues are currently experiencing, commended the agency for the amount of public input they sought.

While she didn’t have a chance to read the full report Friday she said she doesn’t believe there is enough money currently in the system to support the needs of the children who need help.

“It’s hard to make reimbursement rates match the cost of providing the services,” said Bye, who is the chairman of the legislature’s Appropriations Committee.

She said lawmakers tried to begin to address the problem this year when they funded two positions in the state Healthcare Advocate’s office that focused solely on the issue of mental health. But for all the talk about solving this crisis “there isn’t mental health parity,” Bye said, referring to the idea of insuring mental health services on the same level as physical ailments.

State officials say they are doing their best to deal with the situation. The draft report calls for enhanced screening by pediatricians and schools, improved data collection, early intervention, and an expansion of community-based services. However, the report does not mandate early-childhood screenings.

The report also acknowledges that more screening would lead to better identification of problems for a system that’s already at capacity.

“Unless services are enhanced, the screening for behavioral problems is likely to lead to an increase in demand for services from an already overburdened system, resulting in children being referred to longer wait lists rather than effective services,” the report concludes.

However, the report adds that it’s an investment “that will ultimately prove to be cost effective and the right thing to do for Connecticut’s children.”

To comment on the report, visit www.plan4children.org.