Hickenlooper wants $18 million more for mental health services

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DENVER — Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper Tuesday outlined his administration’s plan to spend an additional $18.5 million to expand mental health services.

Most of the proposals floated by the governor, which include the opening of five new mental health crisis centers, a statewide mental health hotline and a change to allow mental health records to move in real time to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation when it conducts background checks on gun purchases, cannot be accomplished without a vote from the legislature.

When state lawmakers go back to work in January, Democrats will again control both the state House and Senate.

“The burden is on us to demonstrate to lawmakers that this is a wise investment,” Hickenlooper said Tuesday during a press conference at the Capitol. “If we had another $20 million dollars, there’s a lot more we could do. But when we looked at what is most likely to increase the level of safety in the state, these seemed like the best investments.”

Hickenlooper’s plan is a response to this summer’s mass shooting at an Aurora theater, not something drawn up hastily after Friday’s deadly shooting in Connecticut.

“We planned this press conference weeks ago,” he said. “We did not anticipate that it would have the added significance it does now.”

Hickenlooper, who last week just before the Newtown shooting said that “the time is right” to talk about gun control, said Tuesday that one thing that connects the mass shootings there and in Colorado is mental illness.

“Mental illness seems like the one point that’s not controversial,” Hickenlooper said. “Certainly there will be discussions and a thorough analysis; but it connects almost all of these terrible tragedies.”

The governor’s office said Monday that the services Hickenlooper and state health officials are proposing include opening five 24-hour walk-in centers for mental health care in Colorado and establishing a statewide mental health crisis hotline. Those two initiatives alone are estimated to cost $10.2 million.

“We’re never going to have a fail safe system,” Hickenlooper said. What we’re looking at is how do we increase the probability that we can keep those who are suffering some form of mental illness from being a danger to themselves and to others.”

Human Services Executive Director Reggie Bicha and members of Colorado’s mental health and public safety communities joined Hickenlooper at Tuesday’s press conference and detailed the specific plans.

The five crisis centers will offer 24-7 year-round walk-in care for those suffering mental illness; and the real-time electronic transfer of mental health records to the CBI would fix a process that’s almost too slow to be effective at all.

“Currently records are sent via CD-ROM to the FBI’s criminal background check system only twice per year,” Bicha said.

Asked if he could explain that ongoing inefficiency, Hickenlooper told reporters he could not.

Another component of the plan is to expand hospital capacity in Denver for mental health patients, who are currently served only by the state mental health facility in Pueblo.

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