Children's mental health system plan sent to governor, state lawmakers

    Governor Kim Reynolds is joined by mental health advocates in her formal office Monday, April 23, where she announced a children's mental health board to establish a mental health system for children in Iowa (Caroline Cummings).

    A state board tasked with establishing a plan for a children's mental health system in Iowa sent its recommendations to Governor Kim Reynolds and state lawmakers Thursday.

    The 15-page report details recommended programs and benchmarks that state lawmakers will consider when drafting legislation during the 2019 session.

    The plan calls for universal behavior health screenings for children from birth to age 18; comprehensive behavioral health crisis services, including mobile crisis intervention and crisis stabilization; and a variety of treatment options, including support services in schools.

    Governor Kim Reynolds established the the panel, known as the Children's System State Board, by an executive order in April.

    The 18-member group, made up of government and school officials, advocates and mental health providers, met a couple of times over the last few months to discuss strategy. A similar group worked on the sweeping mental health reform law that passed this year, which focused exclusively on fixing the adult system.

    Peggy Huppert, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Iowa, says it's a step in the right direction.

    “We’ve outlined a pretty ambitious agenda," said Huppert, who is part of the state board. "The children of Iowa deserve our attention to correcting the lack of a system and the lack of a overall services."

    The plan details benchmarks for programs, which the board suggests should be up and running over the next couple of years, starting in July 2020. Among the most immediate changes: the behavioral health screenings and crisis services, or "both ends of the spectrum," Huppert said.

    Huppert said the program will require new money from the state, beyond the mental health tax levy and Medicaid dollars that fund the adult program right now. That funding could be a sticking point for lawmakers, but she is confident that they will make it a priority.

    Director of Human Services Jerry Foxhoven, co-chair of the state board, also agrees.

    “Part of that is because there’s been such a commitment from the governor and from both sides of the aisle that it’s worth putting money into it,” Foxhoven said. “So they’ll have to come up with that funding.”

    Another part of the plan addresses workforce shortages. Right now there are only 31 child psychiatrists statewide and those are condensed to Johnson, Linn and Polk Counties. The board recommends workforce incentives to recruit and retain behavioral health professionals in the state.

    Some of these incentives include tax credits, forgiveable student loans and housing programs for students and professionals alike.

    “We can mandate services all day long but if we don’t have the workforce to provide them and the funding to pay for them, it’s not going to make any difference," Huppert said.

    The board was required by the order to submit the recommendations to the legislature and Governor Kim Reynolds by Thursday.

    Thursday afternoon, a spokeswoman for the governor said she had not yet read the recommendations but looks forward to doing so.

    "The governor is thankful to the committee members for their hard work on such an important issue," said spokeswoman Brenna Smith in an email. "Mental health for both adults and children is a priority for the governor and is an issue that will be taken up in the upcoming legislative session."

    The 2019 legislative session begins January 14.

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