Rep. Dave Loebsack meets with University of Iowa Hospital professionals

Mental health program, treatment innovation funding discussed

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Mental health programs need adequate funding and commitment to innovations such as telemedicine that could address issues of access in Iowa, mental health professionals told Rep. Dave Loebsack Wednesday.

Loebsack, D-Iowa City, is holding roundtable discussions in his eastern Iowa district to talk about school safety and mental health services. He met with about a dozen mental health and education professionals Wednesday at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. The discussions, he said, are driven in part by the Sandy Hook School shooting but also by other similar incidents around the country.

"Iowa has seriously underfunded mental health," said Robert Bacon, director of the UI's Center for Excellence on Disabilities at the Center for Disabilities and Development. "The underfunding of the system needs to be on everyone's radar screen."

It's often easy to cut funding for programs in the short term, Loebsack said, but politicians need to keep the bigger picture in mind when it comes to mental health. If programs are cut and appropriate investments aren't made, "it's going to cost us all more in the long run," he said.

Since the Sandy Hook shooting in December, "virtually everyone I talk to does point to the mental health aspect of it," Loebsack said. Identifying issues and getting the proper screening and the proper treatment to people who need them are opportunities to prevent such tragedies in the future, he said. Work on the issue by lawmakers must be a bipartisan effort, Loebsack said, and both sides must step up to the plate and make sure the necessary resources are there.

One way to maximize resources --  especially in a rural state like Iowa, which ranks near the bottom nationally for the number of child psychiatrists -- is to use technology and resources like telemedicine for mental health services, to create greater access across the state, Jennifer McWilliams, a child psychiatrist at UI Hospitals and Clinics, said. Clinics and programs aimed at children often have "horrendously long" waiting lists, she said.

"Geographically it's challenging, because most of those providers (in Iowa) sit in this building," she said.

Finding funding for innovation is another challenge, said Betsy Hradek, a nurse practitioner at UI Hospitals and Clinics, but the overriding message in the mental health discussion should be "that treatment works," she said.

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