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Colorado Gov Pitches Plan To Mend Mental Health Safety Net

In a grim coincidence, just days after the mass killing in Newtown, Conn., Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper is proposing an $18.5 million plan to strengthen the state’s mental health system. The proposal is the result of five months of work by a group of advisors convened by Hickenlooper in the wake of a mass shooting in July at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater that left 12 dead.

The governor’s announcement had been set well before Friday’s massacre.

“We really have a duty after tragedies to look at what we do, how we act, and how we help each other,” Hickenlooper, a Democrat, said. “How do we increase the probability that we can keep those who are suffering from some sort of mental illness from being a danger to themselves and to others?”

The plan calls for 50 new treatment beds for those transitioning from institutional care,  20 more for those in jail or prison and 107 housing vouchers for people being released from in-patient treatment. It would also expand a 24 hour crisis telephone line from beyond Denver to the rest of the state. The plan also calls for five “crisis stabilization centers” people could drop in to 24 hours a day for help.

Like many states, Colorado has seen a net decline in the number of mental health treatment beds in recent years as hospitals have collectively eliminated more than they have added.

Hickenlooper’s plan also calls for streamlining Colorado’s three laws relating to involuntarily committing mentally ill people who may be dangerous.

State Rep. Bob Gardner, a Republican leader in the statehouse on health issues, said he “applauds” the governor’s proposal.

“I hope ($18.5 million) is enough to make a difference … but that’s a fair amount of money, so I’m also mindful we have a budget to meet,” Gardner said.

The plan would have to be approved by the state legislature as part of the 2013-2014 budget.

The governor has also called for talks on gun control, and several Democratic state lawmakers say they’re considering new gun control bills. “I’m certainly open to the conversation,” Gardner said, but “if greater gun control and regulation is not the answer, and I don’t believe it is, then it must be something else. And that something else is, at least in part, mental health services.”

This story is part of a collaboration that includes Colorado Public RadioNPR and Kaiser Health News.