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Brain health is physical health (Local Tips & Reviews)

Being a legislator is not a position that I take lightly. My constituents elected me to fight for legislation that will improve their lives, and that responsibility weighs on my mind every time I enter my office. That’s why a cornerstone of my legislative priorities for this session is ensuring that every Coloradan can access safe, affordable, and high-quality healthcare. This especially includes access to mental healthcare.

My father was a Marine Corps veteran who provided substance abuse and mental health counseling for his fellow men and women in uniform, as well as for former prisoners reentering society. His work exposed me to the complicated financial barriers which exist between mentally ill patients and quality treatment.

As a Colorado state senator, I’m working with my colleagues to remove these barriers, especially as it becomes more and more clear that Colorado is suffering from a mental health crisis. Mental Health America’s 2022 report found that nearly one in four Coloradoans suffers from a mental illness, but fewer than half receive any sort of treatment.

Latino populations have not been spared: nearly one in six Latino Americans suffer from a mental health condition. This crisis is particularly impacting Latino youth: one in five Latino high school students considered suicide in 2021 – which was the second leading cause of death for Latinos between the ages of 15 and 34 from 2019-2020. Many Latinos do not receive mental health treatment because they may lack insurance or are unable to find culturally sensitive care, as only around 5% of psychologists say they can offer services in Spanish.

There are many ways to combat our public mental health crisis. This session, I am working with Sen. Chris Kolker to correct one of the system’s most concerning flaws through a bill that would, if passed, limit step therapy protocols for treating serious mental illnesses.

Step therapy, or “fail first,” is a common practice utilized by insurance companies to ensure a patient has first tried lower cost drugs before they can “step up” to receiving coverage for a more expensive one – often the one prescribed by their medical professional. House Bill 23-1130 will reduce the burden on both prescribers and patients by guaranteeing that serious mental illness sufferers need try only one lower-cost alternative before their insurance will cover the one prescribed by their doctor.

Our current step therapy protocols delay the delivery of the most efficacious and state-of-the-art mental health treatment to one of Colorado’s most vulnerable populations. New mental health care medications are being released each year, but step therapy strongarms patients into waiting for months before they can access them, even if their doctor believes that the newer medication is the one that will best treat their condition.  

Other issues can arise with step therapy as well. For instance, these cheaper medications can elevate the risk of potentially troubling side effects. Most importantly, the simple fact is that the longer a patient goes without the best mental health treatment, the higher the likelihood is of that patient – especially one suffering from a serious mental illness – experiencing a mental health crisis which may land them in the hospital, or worse.

For too long, mental health has not received the consideration and attention that it deserves; consequently, mental illness has not been treated with the same urgency as physical illness or injury. Mental illness – or more accurately, brain health – must be given the same priority as physical health and illnesses. Those struggling with their mental health, and especially those with serious mental illness, should not be faced with time-consuming and bureaucratic processes just to get the medication they desperately need. Placing reasonable limits on step therapy for the treatment of serious mental illness will help ensure patients get the help they need quickly. 

Elected officials like myself have a responsibility to protect the health and wellbeing of our constituents. Patients suffering serious mental illness should not have to jump through a series of administrative hoops to be able to afford the most efficacious and data-driven treatments. House Bill 1130 will be crucial in ensuring that Coloradans with these serious mental illnesses receive streamlined access to high-quality, potentially life-saving care, while reducing the financial burden on patients. This bill is an important part of our effort to help overcome Colorado’s mental health epidemic.

Robert Rodriguez, of Denver, represents District 32 in the Colorado Senate, where he is assistant majority leader.

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