Mental health and addiction emerge as legislative priorities
January 28, 2021
The state’s mental health and substance abuse treatment network took center stage early in the 2021 legislative session as lawmakers advanced bills to ease licensing requirements in an effort to bring more counselors to the state.
Two House bills developed by the Joint Labor, Health and Social Services committee over the last year give boards that license the state’s addiction and mental health counselors more flexibility and lessen some requirements for addiction treatment experts in an effort to attract more to the state.
Debate on the legislation indicated mental health and substance abuse remain at the forefront of many lawmakers’ minds. The pandemic has by some accounts exacerbated the state’s already pressing need for such treatment resources, even as the governor’s budget cuts threaten to further weaken those networks.
“What I hear from my constituents is there’s just not enough mental health resources and that people are struggling with substance use during this time and need a place to go,” Rep. Karlee Provenza (D-Laramie) said during the debate.
House Bill 3 – Certified addictions practitioners-certification amendments passed the House 52-7 with one lawmaker excused. The bill would allow people with a bachelor’s degree in a “human behavioral discipline” but not necessarily addiction therapy to work in the field while continuing their studies.
Supporters hope it will help Wyoming develop counselors in the state, as well as make it easier for out-of-state professionals to move here. “We’re really focused on growing our own here,” Andi Summerville, the executive director of the Wyoming Association of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Centers, told WyoFile.
Previous legislative efforts to lower the licensing requirements have been controversial. Last year, debate between different factions of the state’s mental health and substance abuse providers grew bitter. Industry advocates viewed earlier legislation that eased requirements for counselors working in prisons as designed to assist just the Gateway Foundation. That nationwide nonprofit that runs treatment programs for the Department of Corrections.
Summerville’s group and others met with Gateway Foundation representatives throughout the year and created a compromise all parties supported, she and others said. Key to that compromise was making changes in counselor licensing that not only apply to corrections but across the board in the state, Summerville said.
The Senate Labor, Health and Social Services Committee unanimously approved the bill Monday morning. The full Senate took one vote to advance it and it faces two more votes in the Senate before passage.
House Bill 4 – Mental health professions practice act-amendments, creates a certified mental health worker licensing category which, again, features lower education and experience requirements than the state’s traditional counselor standards. In a fiscal note, Legislative Service Office staff predicted 20 people might apply for the new license in its first year. Even that kind of influx of mental health workers would be a “huge boost” in Wyoming, given the need, Summerville said.
“We are a healthcare-shortage state especially with mental health and substance abuse workers,” Summerville said. “Workforce development is a huge priority for us.”
The Senate has not taken up HB-4.
Wyoming recently became the state with the highest suicide rate in the country, Summerville noted. In remarks to lawmakers in January, Gov. Mark Gordon said the state saw 190 suicides in 2020. Though Gordon linked the increase — 19 more deaths than in 2012, the previous high — to the pandemic, experts say the underlying causes of Wyoming’s suicide, mental health and substance abuse woes precede COVID-19.
Wyoming was among the worst five states for suicide deaths each of the last seven years.
Even as the Legislature advanced the House bills, however, budget cuts that will hamstring the state’s ability to respond to such concerns loom in the planned March session.
House lawmakers got an early taste of the debate on those cuts with discussion of House Bill 48 – Community juvenile services block grant program. The bill paves the way for coming cuts to a grant program used by 14 Wyoming counties to pay for local juvenile service boards. Those
boards are made up of health, education and justice-system officials along with mental health and substance abuse treatment professionals and youth advocates. Those local experts spend state money on programs to prevent juvenile delinquency and seek to keep youth out of the court system.
On the recommendation of the Department of Family Services, Gordon proposed eliminating the funding next year. To make that disinvestment the Legislature has to change law that requires it to fund the programs. HB-48 eliminates that requirement.
The cut will be just one of several to programs intended to keep Wyoming’s youth away from prison or other negative outcomes, and to save the state from the enormous costs thereof. Wyoming has one of the highest juvenile incarceration rates in the nation.
Some House democrats used HB-48 as an opportunity to begin questioning such cuts. Eliminating the program will make it harder for counties to react proactively and will lead to more detention for juveniles and prison time down the road for adults, House Minority Floor Leader Cathy Connolly argued.
“We will see [the impacts] in other costs,” she said.
The Legislature has no choice, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Nicholas (R-Cheyenne) said, citing the scale of the state’s fiscal crisis, a result of plunging fossil fuel industry revenues and an unwillingness to pursue other revenue sources.
“Every one of these [budget choices] was done with an understanding that it will impact communities, it will impact services and it will impact the lives of people in Wyoming,” Nicholas said. The alternative is raising hundreds of millions of dollars, he argued, though individual cuts in these areas are often relatively low dollar amounts.
Eliminating the juvenile services grant program, for example, will save Wyoming $579,000 a year.
The House passed HB-48 out of the chamber with 54 lawmakers in favor. Four Democrats and one Republican voted against it.
As debate on HB-48 revealed most lawmakers were aware of mental health and substance abuse treatment deficiencies in their own communities, there was some indication budget cuts in those areas would find resistance. The state’s most recent revenue report showed slightly more money than predicted when the governor outlined his spending reductions.
Several lawmakers suggested that might mean the state’s treatment programs should be spared the worst of the reduction. It is too early to predict how the body might lean in those discussions, Summerville said. They are slated for March.
But investing in treatment pays societal and fiscal dividends, she said, and “we’re hoping to have that discussion with the Legislature.”
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.