Rep. Liz Linehan. Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

Connecticut’s House of Representatives approved a roughly $35 million bill Wednesday aimed at improving the mental health services available to children.

There’s no question that the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the children’s mental health crisis and lawmakers want parents to know they’ve been listening. 

To address the issue, including greater access to mental health services, the House unanimously passed a bill Wednesday that changes licensing requirements for mental health professionals, creates an advisory board, expands telehealth services, and creates a grant program for student mental health specialists. 

“It is a very comprehensive bill. We talked to so many stakeholders,” Rep. Tammy Exum, D-West Hartford, said. 

The bill is 192 pages long and the summary is 71 pages. 

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“Investing in children’s mental health is really a long-term strategy,” Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire, said. 

“When we help these kids at high acuity moments in their lives then we’re actually saving money down the line because it actually costs more to help someone who is in crisis than it is to help them when they are just beginning to have trouble,” Linehan said. 

She said the bill looks at the short term, intermediate, and long-term needs. When it comes to the immediate, she said it includes the ability to start serving children in an intensive outpatient program in Waterbury.

“We can serve 144 kids a year starting in summer,” Linehan said. “There’s waiting lists everywhere.”

It puts mental health professionals in schools, but to address children’s mental health they also have to address the provider shortage. 

“We’re not looking at having a diminished level of care,” Exum said. However, they are looking at reciprocity for out-of-state providers. 

For Exum, the issue is personal.

Exum gave a tearful close to the bill about her son who was diagnosed with an eating disorder around the start of the pandemic. She said they traveled to an eating disorder specialist every week for months in Greenwich and when things didn’t improve she was told they didn’t have an in-patient bed for her son anywhere in the state of Connecticut. 

She said they begged him to eat, but it’s a mental health disorder. 

“Did you know of all the disorders, eating disorders is the number one killer? I didn’t know that,” Exum said. “But we couldn’t get him to eat because the disorder took control.” 

Majority Leader Jason Rojas, Reps. Tammy Exum, Jonathan Steinberg, Liz Linehan and House Speaker Matt Ritter Credit: Hugh McQuaid photo

They called Colorado and at the height of the pandemic they got on a plane and left him in the hands of strangers, “because it was life or death.” 

She said they don’t have the in-patient and out-patient programs in the state of Connecticut. 

“You come back and you’re afraid because you don’t have services to keep you stable,” Exum said. 

She said there’s no linear path for parents to follow. 

“I don’t have an ending that makes everyone feel great,” Exum said. 

She said at one point they had to go to Connecticut Children’s Medical Center and the emergency room is overflowing “because there’s no place to put them.” 

She said it took months to get a plan together, but she pulled together the resources and didn’t worry about the stigma. 

Exum was lucky to have health insurance that covered his treatment. Many parents don’t. 

The bill also eliminates the need for prior authorization from an insurance company for in-patient treatment. 

“This will really help kids get out of the ER’s and into in-patient treatment,” Linehan said. 

Rep. William Petit Jr., R-Plainville, said he thinks it’s a good first step. 

“I believe overall this is a very good bill, I don’t think it’s the be-all end-all,” Petit said. 

He said the number one focus over the next few years has to be on increasing the number of providers. 

Rep. Tammy Nuccio, R-Tolland, said she doesn’t like big aircraft carrier bills, but this one she likes because it’s covering the “spectrum of A to Z” of helping children with their health care needs. 

“I think overall these programs are going to help children in school,” Nuccio said. 

She said there’s no ability for someone to go see a mental health provider without a diagnosis and get covered by insurance. 

“In this bill here, we are establishing two wellness exams here,” Nuccio said. “At no cost to the patient.” 

Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, said they are asking the insurance companies to cover this. 

There are dozens of provisions in the bill that lawmakers said will help address the crisis. 

Rep. Christine Carpino, R-Cromwell, said students will have access to the Suicide Prevention Hotline printed on the back of their student ID because of this bill. 

“It may seem like a little thing, but I think it’s going to have a big impact,” Carpino said. 

Last week the Senate passed SB 2 as a companion bill that lawmakers said will complement HB 5001.