Government

Lawmaker, advocates encouraged by Iowa mental health legislation

They also point to state's need for more psychiatrists, therapists

Mary Neubauer

Mental health advocate
Mary Neubauer Mental health advocate
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JOHNSTON — Although the Iowa Legislature has passed landmark legislation expanding mental health services, a key lawmaker said the job is not done and the state must remain ready to adapt to changing needs.

Rep. Joel Fry, R-Osceola, chairman of the House Human Resources Committee, said he’s “incredibly proud” of the unanimous passage of House File 2456 to expand access to mental health services by making it easier to get people who need help into the system.

At the same time, he noted the Legislature also has approved legislation to expand access to and the use of telehealth, as well as a suicide prevention bill. A bill to address opioid abuse has been passed by the House and is pending in the Senate.

But lawmakers’ work isn’t done, he said during the Friday taping of Iowa Public Television’s “Iowa Press.”

“I don’t know that you ever put a ribbon around mental health issues and say that the issue is fixed,” Fry said.

“As time moves on, issues change for individuals, new social factors come into play,” he said. “We have to be ready to move and evolve with the community. So I would not say that this issue is never fixed, given the nature of the world that we live in.”

Mental health advocates agreed but were encouraged by the legislation.

“It’s significant. I would go so far as to say groundbreaking,” said Peggy Huppert, executive director for the Iowa chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

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The legislation address services from the crisis entry point all the way through to ongoing and long-term care.” Huppert said.

“So we have access centers for people in crisis — and that was important to law enforcement, but it’s also important to family members when you have someone who is in crisis to have a place to take them,” said Huppert, whose children have mental health issues.

Mary Neubauer, whose teen son struggled with mental illness before taking his own life, said including subacute care — long-term residential mental health care delivered in less than “full hospitalization” settings — “was huge from my perspective.”

The question, Neubauer said, is whether there will be enough of that service available.

“I think only time will tell, and that’s why it’s so important that this conversation continue,” she said.

Fry is confident it will.

Gov. Kim Reynolds’ executive order creating a Children’s Mental Health Board to make recommendations for the implementation of children’s mental health programs, services and resources will steer that conversation, he said.

In addition, lawmakers also will be looking at the sustainability of the funding for both children’s and adult mental health, he said.

Neubauer said the state has to address the need for trained mental health personnel.

“Iowa hospitals have flat-out said they’re having great difficulty in attracting psychiatrists, psychologists and master’s level therapists … because of reimbursement for those providers or simply perhaps the level of income that they can achieve here in Iowa compared to somewhere else,” she said.

Noting there are only 31 child psychiatrists in the state, Huppert suggested registered nurses and physician assistants may need to play a larger role.

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“We’re never going to have enough psychiatrists to take care of everyone, ever, especially not child psychiatrists,” she said. “We also need to do a better job of educating our family doctors because two-thirds of all psychotropic medicines are prescribed by family doctors, but a lot of them are not equipped to and don’t really want to handle it.”

NAMI is collaborating with Des Moines University to help make sure that family doctors get more training in recognizing and treating mental health issues.

Iowa Press can be seen at 7:30 p.m. today and noon Sunday on IPTV, at 8:30 a.m. Saturday on IPTV World and online at IPTV.org.

l Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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