Improving Iowa's mental health system

Upmeyer Column: The weather is starting to get warmer which means winter sports are wrapping up and spring sports will soon begin. Congratulations to all of our area athletes and teams who have been or will be participat-ing in postseason tournaments.

In case you haven't seen, the U.S. News and World Report named Iowa the Best State in America this week. Iowans already knew that our state was a great place to live, work, raise a family or grow a business, and now the entire country knows. We are just getting started with efforts to make our state even better for future generations.

Last week, I wrote about some of the things we are do-ing to make health care in Iowa more accessible and affordable for individuals and families. One of the issues that I touched on was the issue of mental health care and said that I would provide a more in-depth update in a future news-letter.

The topic of mental healthcare is a personal issue for many Iowans. Oftentimes when an individual is suffering from mental illness or a mental health crisis, families don't know where to go for help.

This week, we passed a historic mental health bill that will strengthen our regional, community-based mental health system.

Over the last several years, we have worked hard to en-sure that Iowans have access to mental health services. In 2012, we completely reformed the state's mental health sys-tem, moving to a regional-based system where people could access services in their communities and financial re-sources were spread out more equally throughout Iowa's 99 counties. Since the regionaliza-tion went into place, the Legis-lature has made changes in response to the needs and requests of our regions to en-sure that mental health treat-ment is delivered in the most efficient and effective way pos-sible.

I have long wanted people to be able to seek help closer to home where they have fami-lies and support systems. A person shouldn't be forced to go half way across the state, leaving their family and loved ones, just to get the help they need.

Last year, a group of mental health experts got together to develop policy recommenda-tions for the Legislature. This group included mental health professionals, law enforcement officials, and individuals and families who have experienced some sort of mental health cri-sis. We worked closely with these folks and across the aisle to craft this comprehensive bill that will improve our mental health system and support individuals and families dealing with mental illness.

The bill passed by the House expands new preventa-tive services to deescalate men-tal health patients before reach-ing crisis levels. Under our current system, patients are frequently admitted to inpatient psych facilities for lack of al-ternative options, and stays are often long which has led to a shortage of available of beds. However, oftentimes an indi-vidual really needs short-term treatment to be stabilized be-fore reaching a crisis. Once stabilized, a patient can receive outpatient treatment, or a lower level of care, and get the sup-port needed to get back on their feet. Our bill creates six new regional access centers where patients that are on the verge of a mental health crisis can get that short-term treat-ment. This will ensure that mental health resources are utilized in the most efficient way possible and patients can get the proper attention they need at the right time they need it.

The bill also ensures long-term, sustainable resources for mental health and substance abuse services across the state of Iowa by making these Med-icaid-covered services. The nonpartisan Legislative Ser-vices Agency estimates that about 80 percent of these new services will be covered by Medicaid.

Another major goal of this legislation is to improve com-munication between mental health professionals and law enforcement. The bill allows a mental health professional to disclose a patient's mental health information to law en-forcement if there is a possibil-ity that a patient may hurt themselves or others. While this is already allowed under HIPAA regulations, putting this into law will give mental health providers more clarity and certainty about what in-formation they can legally share.

Additionally, the bill en-sures that mental health pro-viders, rather than judges, are the ones making mental health decisions. We know that jails and prisons should not be the default location for mental health treatment. It is a disser-vice to those who have a medi-cal disorder and it creates addi-tional, unnecessary costs for our local governments. Our bill addresses this issue and will help ease the problem going forward.

When viewed in its entire-ty, this bill will make a differ-ence. This bill will truly make a positive impact on our state and ensure that families and those suffering from mental illness are not alone.

There is still more work to do and we will continue to look for opportunities to fur-ther increase access and im-prove our mental health system.

As always, please keep in touch. As legislation moves forward, feel free to send me comments, questions or feedback that you may have regarding issues before us in the House. I can be reached at or 515-281-3521.