Brain health is physical health

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

My father was a Marine Corps veteran who provided substance abuse and mental health counseling to his fellow men and women in uniform as well as ex-prisoners re-entering society. His work exposed me to the complex financial barriers that exist between mentally ill patients and quality treatment.

As a Colorado State Senator, I am working with my colleagues to remove these barriers, especially as it becomes increasingly clear that Colorado is suffering from a mental health crisis. Mental Health America’s 2022 report found that nearly one in four Colorado residents suffer from a mental illness, but less than half receive any treatment.

Latinos are not spared: nearly one in six Latinos suffer from mental illness. This crisis is particularly affecting Latino youth: One in five Latino high school students considered suicide in 2021 – which was the second leading cause of death for Latinos aged 15-34 from 2019-2020. Many Latinos are not receiving mental health treatment , because they may not have insurance or be unable to find culturally sensitive care, as only about 5% of psychologists say they can offer services in Spanish.

There are many ways to combat our societal mental health crisis. This session, I’m working with Senator Chris Caulker to correct one of the system’s most troubling flaws through a bill that, if passed, would limit step therapy protocols to treat serious mental illness.

Step therapy, or “fail first,” is a common practice used by insurance companies to ensure that a patient first tries a lower-cost drug before being able to “step up” to receiving coverage for a more expensive — often that prescribed by their medical professional. House Bill 23-1130 would reduce the burden on both prescribers and patients by ensuring that those suffering from serious mental illness only have to try one less expensive alternative before their insurance will cover the one prescribed by their doctor.

Our current step therapy protocols are delaying the delivery of the most effective and cutting-edge mental health treatment to one of Colorado’s most vulnerable populations. New mental health drugs are released every year, but step therapy makes patients wait months before they can access them, even if their doctor thinks the newer drug is the one that will best treat their condition.

Other problems can also arise with step therapy. For example, these cheaper drugs may increase the risk of potentially troublesome side effects. Most importantly, the simple fact is that the longer a patient goes without the best mental health treatment, the more likely that patient—especially one with serious mental illness—is to experience a mental health crisis that it could land him in the hospital, or worse.

For too long mental health has not received the respect and attention it deserves; therefore, mental illness was not treated with the same urgency as physical illness or injury. Mental illness – or more specifically brain health – should be given the same priority as physical health and disease. Those struggling with their mental health, and especially those with serious mental illness, should not have to face 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 that patients get the help they need quickly.

Elected officials like me have a responsibility to protect the health and well-being of our constituents. Patients suffering from serious mental illness should not have to jump through a series of administrative hoops to afford the most effective and evidence-based treatment. House Bill 1130 will be critical to 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 efforts to help end the mental health epidemic in Colorado.

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

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