DES MOINES — Hailing a “major milestone,” Gov. Kim Reynolds signed into law Wednesday a “life-changing” bill passed with bipartisan support that creates and funds the state’s first-of-its-kind children’s mental health system.
House File 690 — a proposal that came from Reynolds and was based on recommendations made by experts and advocates — establishes a system just for children, lays out what core services must be provided and creates a state board to oversee it. The law creates a system by 2020 to serve children up to age 18 who have serious emotional disturbances.
“Big things happen when people come together for the common good,” Reynolds said at a bill-signing ceremony in the Capitol rotunda attended by legislators, parents and advocates who have worked — some for decades — to see their efforts finally come to fruition.
The governor called HF 690 “a life-changing bill that helps lift the veil of stigma associated with mental illness and replaces it with hope, healing and comfort of community.
“This landmark legislation will ensure that young Iowans who suffer from mental illnesses will be treated with dignity and respect on the journey to well-being for generations to come,” she added.
The governor’s proposal — which called for an initial $3 million state investment that was whittled to $2.1 million — establishes a children’s behavioral health system and an oversight board; eligibility requirements and core services; regional crisis stabilization, mobile response teams, 24-hour hotline access to services and $1.2 million for home and community-based children’s mental health services to eliminate the waiting list that currently exists.
Reynolds credited a determined group of advocates for shattering misconceptions about mental illness and lobbying for action, using the occasion to thank Mary Neubauer and Larry Loss as catalysts by sharing the painful story of their adopted son, Sergei, who died by suicide in September 2017. Sergei moved from a Russian orphanage to Iowa when the Clive couple adopted him in 2009.
“It’s so hard to feel the context of history when you’re in the moment, but this is huge,” Neubauer told reporters after the event. “To think of the impact of this little boy from Russia and everything that his life will have accomplished even though it was only 18 years long is a beautiful thing.”
Loss called Wednesday “very bittersweet,” noting that advocates were “thrilled” there will be resources in Iowa for families that need them but added it was a sad day because “nothing brings Serge back, and that part of the story never changes.”
Peggy Huppert, a longtime activist for children’s mental health reform in Iowa, said the importance of Wednesday’s bill-signing event could not be underestimated. But she said there still are funding challenges ahead for a regional system that relies on property taxes at a time when those resources are limited.
Reynolds told reporters she expects to sign a related bill that lets counties build up cash reserves to finance expansion of mental health services, but Huppert noted those funds likely will be used up in a couple of years while the services envisioned in the new law are ongoing.
“It’s a big thing that’s looming over us,” said Huppert, executive director of the Iowa chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Sen. Jeff Edler, R-State Center, who served as floor manager for HF 690, said the Legislature in its fiscal 2020 budget committed about $4.75 million overall for children’s mental-health services from various sources outside of Medicaid.
Sen. Liz Mathis, D-Hiawatha, who has worked on the issue for more than four years, said most of the core services should be funded and accessible as the new system gets up and running as each region decides what’s best for their communities beyond those basic offerings.
“But it’s just the initial stage, though,” Mathis said. “We thought that was hard work to get it to here. The hard work is what’s ahead.”
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