Government

Iowa legislators outline mental health priorities

Statehouse leaders convene Monday for 2018 session

Angela Walker, president of Des Moines University, speaks Dec. 5 during a forum on mental health care issues in the campus’ Olsen Center. To the right are the 13 candidates for Iowa governor who fielded questions on mental health care issues during the event. Gov, Kim Reynolds, who was on a family vacation, was absent but sent a video statement. About 400 people attended the forum. (Erin Murphy/Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau)
Angela Walker, president of Des Moines University, speaks Dec. 5 during a forum on mental health care issues in the campus’ Olsen Center. To the right are the 13 candidates for Iowa governor who fielded questions on mental health care issues during the event. Gov, Kim Reynolds, who was on a family vacation, was absent but sent a video statement. About 400 people attended the forum. (Erin Murphy/Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau)

DES MOINES — It is an issue, a question, that has driven Iowans to public events and town halls by the hundreds: How can the state improve its mental health care system?

So I asked the governor and state’s top state lawmakers that very question last week, just days before the Iowa Legislature convenes for its 2018 session.

The state has been working on its mental health care delivery system for years.

In 2013, the state shifted from a county to a regional delivery system. Instead of each of the 99 counties having its own mental health care system, most counties grouped into regions to share resources and deliver services.

Advocates say it was a step in the right direction, although there have been bumps in the road. Multiple regions are experiencing disharmony among the counties.

More importantly, Iowans with mental health needs sometimes are still falling through the cracks. The stories are personal, heartbreaking and horrifying, and they have driven Iowans by the hundreds to speak out about the issues with and needs in the system.

Monday, state lawmakers will convene for the 2018 session, during which they have the opportunity to improve existing programs, create new ones and examine the potential need for more funding.

What are their plans? Here’s what they said.

Gov. Kim Reynolds touted the 2013 shift to regions and said the state since then has increased mental health funding by 34 percent. She also said more can be done, and said a systemic approach is needed — one that includes mental health care, opioid addiction treatment and privately managed Medicaid.

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“We need to make sure that it’s coordinated, it’s accountable and that we’re strategic in how were really meeting the needs of Iowans that are vulnerable or suffering,” Reynolds said.

The Republican governor said a state task force has made recommendations to her administration, and that she believes there are some opportunities to improve the state’s mental health care system.

She said she plans to talk about the issue Tuesday during her Condition of the State address to the Legislature.

Bill Dix of Shell Rock, the Republican leader in the Senate, said there might be an opportunity to better coordinate services so people who need them receive them.

Dix said he expects a group of GOP senators to meet and make recommendations.

“There are a number of Republican senators who view this as one of the must-do things this session,” Dix said. “I anticipate that they’ll be working to build broad consensus on a proposal to accomplish just that.”

Linda Upmeyer of Clear Lake, the Republican House speaker, also noted the state has been working on its mental health care system for many years, yet acknowledged more needs to be done.

She said services must be available to help individuals who are going into a mental health crisis, as well as for those emerging from a crisis and trying to become stable.

“I think we can all agree that what we need now is more services in our communities,” Upmeyer said.

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Mark Smith of Marshalltown, the Democratic leader in the House, said his primary goal is to increase the number of mental health care professionals — psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors, social workers, nurse practitioners — working in Iowa, particularly in rural areas.

“We are short on professionals. That needs to be fixed by more programs that help people with getting educations and moving into rural areas,” Smith said.

He also said the Medicaid reimbursement system is causing issues in mental health care. He said providers are struggling because of low or untimely reimbursement from Medicaid.

Janet Peterson of Des Moines, leader of the Senate Democrats, said the state erred in closing two state-run mental health institutions in 2014 without having adequate community-based services ready for patients who had been treated in those facilities.

She also cited concern with the state’s funding system, which is generated in part through local property taxes. She noted Polk County, the state’s most populous, has been locked into the same funding level since 1996 even though the population there has grown by 100,000 people.

“We have fewer dollars to serve more people and more needs. And some areas of the state that are seeing growth are having those same problems we’re having in Polk County. Whereas other communities, where they’re losing population, aren’t having those problems,” Petersen said. “But I do believe we can come together to work on that. And we must come together and work on that.”

Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government. His email address is erin.murphy@lee.net.

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