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Legislative committee supports task force to look at mental health services

CHEYENNE – A committee of state lawmakers voted Thursday in support of a bill that would establish a task force to study Wyoming’s mental health services.

The bill would create a 12-member group consisting of legislators, mental health-care providers and representatives from the state Department of Health, and law enforcement. It also would include a spot for somebody who has received mental health or substance use services within the state.

By a 10-3 vote, members of the Legislature’s Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Interim Committee voted to move forward with the bill, which still needs to gain approval from the Legislature as a whole during its 2020 budget session.

Rep. Sue Wilson, R-Cheyenne, said she developed the bill after realizing the problems outlined by a similar task force in 2005 were still plaguing the state.

“The really sad thing is about 80% of the problems and challenges identified then, we still have those now,” said Wilson, who co-chairs the joint committee.

Mike Ceballos, director of the Wyoming Department of Health, said he and other department officials held several outreach sessions across the state in recent months.

“This is certainly the single most discussed topic we’ve had in community discussions,” Ceballos said. “It is of great importance for us to do this.”

State health officials have been working on the issue for 20 years, he said.

“This is one of those pigs we need to wrestle to the ground,” Ceballos said.

Ceballos added Gov. Mark Gordon wants him to start working immediately on the problems, even without the task force.

Rep. Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, voted in favor of the bill, though he said he would propose changes to it during the session, noting the need for the Department of Corrections, the Department of Family Services and others to be represented on the task force.

“I have about 25 amendments, but I’ll save those for the session,” Barlow quipped.

Barlow said while many problems have persisted since 2005, the previous task force’s work led to legislation being passed in the 2006 and 2007 legislative sessions.

“Both years, they had bills that they passed that provided a lot of the funding and programs that are currently available through the Department of Health,” Barlow said. “I don’t think there’s any question that action came out of the last one.”

Sen. Stephen Pappas, R-Cheyenne, said important topics like the one at hand deserve studying beyond what typically occurs within committees.

“We, as committees, have gotten so burdened and have been given so many topics and so much to look at during the interim that we can’t do it justice,” Pappas said.

During the meeting, several mental health-care providers testified in favor of the bill. Andrea Summerville, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Centers, said the conversation can’t wait any longer.

“The current system that we have is not sustainable for your community mental health centers,” Summerville said. “They are underfunded and providing millions and millions of dollars each year in services that they’re not being reimbursed for from the state.”

Wyoming has the third-highest suicide rate in the country, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from this year.

Approval of this task force comes nearly a month after legislators on the Joint Transportation Interim Committee voted against a bill establishing a separate task force to explore ways to meet the state’s infrastructure needs.

If approved, the mental health service task force would be expected to report back to the committee by Oct. 1 of next year, and it would be dissolved at the end of 2021.

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