Connecticut legislative leaders plan to prioritize mental health system in ‘deep crisis’
Top House and Senate leaders said Tuesday that addressing Connecticut’s overburdened and understaffed mental health system for children and adults will be a bipartisan priority when the General Assembly convenes next month.
House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, told participants in an online mental health symposium he is optimistic about the potential for significant legislation emerging from a bipartisan working group.
“This is a unique moment in time that we can’t miss. And we can’t assume that anybody who’s not been with us before is not with us on this particular subject,” Ritter said. “There really is, I think, an opportunity to do something historic, bipartisan, with overwhelming support.”
Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, who also addressed the symposium, said he agreed with Ritter’s assessment, as did House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford, and Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, in interviews.
Symposium participants said mental health services are better in Connecticut than most states, but the system nonetheless is one in deep crisis — unable to meet demand prior to COVID-19, and now overwhelmed by the prolonged pandemic.
The symposium was moderated by Darnell Ford, a Middletown councilman and a long-time child services worker at the Albert J. Solnit Children’s Center, a psychiatric facility operated by the Department of Children and Families. He also is a member of SEIU 1199, a union pressing hard for additional funding.
“Whether it’s the public or the private sector, when we think about private sector agencies that are hemorrhaging clinicians, down to zero clinicians in some cases, that’s a crisis,” said Rob Baril, the union’s president.
Baril pointed to the vacancies at state facilities, such as Solnit and Connecticut Valley Hospital, and the shortage of pediatric mental-health beds that left more than 40 children in the emergency department of Connecticut Children’s Medical Center last fall.
“That is a system in crisis,” he said.
Service providers ranging from a social worker to a child psychiatrist sketched a picture of a dramatic spike in demands for services during the pandemic, particularly for children, from a system fraying before the arrival of COVID.
Ritter promised more funding, but he warned that more than money will be needed to address widespread staffing shortages, even in places that have adequate funding to fill vacancies. Flexibility in licensing appears necessary, he said.
“We have to be honest and say that right now we have a shortage of workers, and it may require allowing our folks to go into other states and their folks to come into our state and practice once in a while,” Ritter said.
The legislature passed a sweeping mental health bill last year that largely focused on studies and data-gathering in preparation for policy and funding changes to be debated in the three-month session that opens Feb. 9.
“But I’m telling you, this is the moment,” Ritter said. “And if everybody is united and works with a common purpose to pass legislation, we will sit here in May when session is over, and we will have done some historic stuff in this space.”
Looney said the issue is a priority of Senate Democrats.
“We had legislation in the last session, Senate Bill 1 and 2, and other vehicles,” Looney said. “They created a number of task forces dealing with mental health issues and children’s mental health issues that we expect will report back to us with recommendations at the start of this session.”
Looney said insurance coverage and funding for mental health services will be addressed.
Candelora and Kelly, the GOP leaders, offered similar views.
“I think we have to pay comprehensive attention to the issue,” Candelora said. “We’re seeing a staffing shortage for clinicians in the field of mental health. I think we’re also seeing certain pressure points in areas that we haven’t seen before, like school psychologists and psychiatrists, and even our pediatricians, that are needing to tackle these issues and find referrals for children.”
Kelly said he expects the legislature to continue its efforts to improve access to mental health care by addressing insurance coverage and capacity.
“Particularly coming on the heels of the COVID pandemic, I think mental health and mental health services are front and center,” Kelly said.