The Free Press, Mankato, MN

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February 14, 2013

Our View: Mental health bills mark a good start

— Initiatives to shore up funding for mental health services to young people, fill in gaps in treatment coverage and improve access stand as a good starting point for curing a mental health system that doesn't fill needs society in general is finding more critical.

Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL, Mankato, has authored a pair of bills that would help alleviate the system's growing pains and fill gaps that, in light of so many violent incidents of late, seem to be more and more critical.

Sheran's bill would help lead to early intervention in cases of mental illness in young people and create more access to services in schools and help coordinate services between counties and providers.

One bill calls for a $5 million per year expansion of mental health programs in schools. Testimony given to the Senate Health and Human Services and Housing Committee that Sheran chairs showed a need for such services. Parents find it difficult to leave work and have adequate transportation to get their children to mental health practitioners. Having them in the school would likely allow more parents to get more kids some of the help they need and get it more quickly.

Similar programs in Minneapolis showed some success, according to testimony provided to the committee by Dr. Mark Sander, a clinical psychologist with Hennepin County.

Sheran's bill would increase funding for that program from about $7.5 million to $10 million over two years. It makes sense to attempt to bolster programs that are already working in order to create more access to mental health services.

Another part of Sheran's proposals would expand coverage of mental health services by county agencies until a client was 26 years old. That's aimed at also improving access because young adults often have a more difficult time qualifying for services than children do. Sheran said that's because the system is based on age more than what treatment is appropriate.

The expansion of the program will no doubt improve care and increase access to mental health services, but counties that administer many mental health programs are worried about the additional costs they will incur. That's a legitimate concern and when costs are calculated for the bills those funding questions should be taken seriously.

Sheran plans also aim to tackle treatment issues by creating more flexibility in formularies, those guides to recommended treatments doctors use.

 A complex system of recommended treatment for certain mental health issues call for first prescriptions, for example, based on a formula that providers adhere to based in part on cost concerns which tend to be insurance related. That could likely constrain the provider from the best treatment first. Sheran's plan aims to put more flexibility in those formulas.

The bills also make sense on some basics, like providing more training to teachers and schools, law enforcement and social service providers on how to deal with mental health issues children might be facing.

All in all, the bills are a good start, and as Sheran said, they are by no means the all-encompassing solutions. But they are good first steps to take and have bipartisan support.

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