Government

Iowa parents call for children's mental health system by 2020

Reform, they say, would save taxpayers money in the long run

Sen. Liz Mathis
Sen. Liz Mathis

DES MOINES — Parents of children with mental health issues are calling on the state to establish a children’s mental health care system by 2020.

The Coalition for Children’s Mental Health Redesign in Iowa on Thursday published recommendations on how Iowa can treat children with mental health care needs.

The coalition includes 45 organizations and more than 90 individuals calling for more cooperation by state agencies, school- and community-based services and public outreach and education.

“This coalition is grass-roots. It’s parent-led, and it’s individuals working together to find solutions to Iowa’s current children’s mental health crisis,” Kathy Leggett, a coalition core committee member, said at a news conference Thursday at the Iowa Capitol. “And I do believe it is a crisis.”

Leggett, like many other coalition members, has a child with mental health issues. Leggett said her son missed most of his sixth- and seventh-grade because of an anxiety disorder.

Tammy Nyden, with Iowa’s chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said her child has Tourette syndrome, is on the autism spectrum and has a mood disorder.

“What this is, is a call to action. ... It’s a call to action to every person in Iowa,” Nyden said of the coalition’s recommendations. “Everyone has to be a part of the solution. ... It’s a systemic problem, and it will only be solved with a systematic solution.”

Iowa in recent years redesigned its mental health care delivery system. Previously, each of the state’s 99 counties had its own mental health care system; the redesign put counties into regions and created a baseline of services required statewide.

The redesign did not specifically address children’s mental health care, despite a work group established to make recommendations to state lawmakers.

The state has created a new work group that will once again examine children’s mental health care. That group’s work begins next week.

The coalition, which will be represented on the work group, hopes the group will consider its recommendations.

Erin Drinnin, with the United Way of Central Iowa, acknowledged many of the suggested reforms will come at a cost to taxpayers. She said the coalition was unable to produce a fiscal impact and suggested that some measures could create eventual savings.

For example, she said, providing ongoing services to a child with mental health issues would be cheaper than paying for the child’s incarceration, and funding invested in mental health care would result in lower medical costs.

Two key state lawmakers attended the news conference: Sen. Liz Mathis, a Democrat who works at Four Oaks in Cedar Rapids and chairwoman of the Senate Human Resources Committee, and Rep. Dave Heaton, the Mount Pleasant Republican who chairs the House Human Resources Committee.

Both said they hope to implement some children’s mental health care reforms in 2016, but both acknowledged it will be difficult to increase state spending.

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“They’ll have some things that we can do that are reasonable and effective and cost-efficient in this (legislative) session,” Mathis said. “And then I think we’ll continue to work on some of those long-term issues.”

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