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Government

Iowa lawmakers back new mental health system for kids

Advocates cheer 'first step' seen in governor's proposal

(FILE PHOTO) In 2018, Gov. Kim Reynolds joined state legislators, mental-health service advocates, families of suicide victims and others who gathered in the Capitol building rotunda Thursday to applaud the enactment and signing of legislation to build a comprehensive mental-health system and bolster Iowa’s commitment to treating children and adults facing mental health challenges. (Rod Boshart/The Gazette)
(FILE PHOTO) In 2018, Gov. Kim Reynolds joined state legislators, mental-health service advocates, families of suicide victims and others who gathered in the Capitol building rotunda Thursday to applaud the enactment and signing of legislation to build a comprehensive mental-health system and bolster Iowa’s commitment to treating children and adults facing mental health challenges. (Rod Boshart/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — Groundwork proposed for creating a statewide children’s mental health care system is long overdue, much appreciated and yet incomplete — but should be passed quickly, advocates widely agreed Wednesday before an Iowa Senate panel.

Legislation that would lay the foundation, Senate Study Bill 1197, received its first public hearing at the Iowa Capitol before a subcommittee. The proposal came from Gov. Kim Reynolds and was based on recommendations made by experts and advocates.

“It’s a priority of ours,” Reynolds said Wednesday during a news conference. “It’s the right thing to do. We don’t have a children’s mental health system right now. We’ve been talking about it for decades. As I said in the Condition of the State (address), now is the time to act.”

The governor’s proposal establishes eligibility requirements, outlines core services to be provided statewide, aligns the new children’s system with the regionally-focused adult system and creates a board to oversee the new system.

With distinct symmetry, mental health care advocates who testified at Wednesday’s legislative hearing on the proposal said they were grateful it has been brought forward and that they appreciate the initial steps taken in the bill. They also pointed to what they said are critical missing elements.

The most frequent requests were for timelines to ensure goals laid out in the legislation are achieved; elimination of a requirement that a child be diagnosed before he or she can receive services; establishing a hotline as a starting point for people seeking to help a child in crisis; and funding to ensure the services are delivered.

Representatives from counties, and mental health care regions in particular, stressed the need for more funding or for eliminating the cap on counties’ ability to raise taxes to fund mental health care services.

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Larry Murphy, a lobbyist for one of the Eastern Iowa mental health care regions, said state funding for mental health care services has been “episodic” and urged lawmakers to devise a long-term formula.

Iowa’s mental health care services currently are funded by federal, state and local sources.

“You need to put in place some sort of formula that pulls in all the various players that actually fund mental health in some capacity and decide what the state’s contribution is going to be,” Murphy said. “Polices are wonderful, but policies without dollars behind them are well-intentioned words — but they don’t have a lot of impact.”

Reynolds and legislators acknowledged the proposal is just a first step that simply lays some groundwork for a new children’s system.

“This is really an important first step,” Reynolds said. “It’s not going to be perfect, but we have to start with the structure. And what I’ve seen is we’ve spent two decades talking about how much we need one, but we’ve yet to take the first step in creating the system. And that’s what this does.”

When legislators said they planned to advance the bill, advocates in the hearing room applauded.

“I’m thrilled,” said Nina Rickman, who said she has two adopted sons with mental health care needs. “This is so, so important and it will greatly and positively impact so many families like mine with kids who struggle with mental illness.”

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