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EDITORIAL: Why does Colorado shamefully short mental illness while subsidizing sports cars?

Gazette - 1/2/2019

Jan. 01--Taking control of all facets of Colorado state government next month, Democrats should immediately address the state's mental health care crisis.

This should not be a difficult task for leaders of a party that advocates compassion. It should fall in line with priorities of a party that talks boldly of government improving everything, including the global climate.

All odds favor good Democratic outcomes in 2019, if party leaders pursue meaningful priorities.

The controlling party, headed by incoming Gov. Jared Polis, will govern a state with the country's hottest economy. The governor's Office of State Planning and Budgeting expects a surplus of $1.22 billion, and the number could go higher.

Despite Colorado's good fortunes, and our consistent high ranking on lists of best places to live, our state can be a nightmare for mental health patients and those who love them. We typically rank among the bottom half of states regarding per capita prevalence of mental illness, and access to care.

Our consistent ranking among 10 states with the highest suicide rates probably relates to our stingy approach to mental health care. It might play a role in our growing rate of domestic abuse, homelessness, alcoholism, drug abuse, and the general despair of people with psychological illnesses who have almost no access to help.

The state's shameful lack of mental health resources hit a new low this month when the Colorado Department of Human Services dropped to zero -- yes, zero -- the number of state psychiatric beds available to adults who are not in jail.

The department's decision addresses the problem of criminal defendants languishing for months in jails while awaiting state-provided treatments for psychiatric conditions associated with their charges. The lack of mental health resources for inmates has become so severe the federal government is suing the Department of Human Services.

In trying to appease federal litigators, the state merely exacerbates problems for uninsured and financially challenged patients who have not been arrested. It reduces one problem by increasing another. We cannot resolve a shortage by redistributing burdens from one group to another. This is a microcosm of the general health care crisis. We must innovate and grow our way out of this dilemma by producing adequate resources of care -- publicly, privately and both.

As explained by Gazette reporter Jakob Rodgers, the admission ban primarily affects the state's 90-plus-bed Fort Logan hospital in Denver. The state's only other psychiatric hospital -- Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo -- largely stopped accepting noninmates a few years ago for the same reasons.

Mental health patients do not comprise a bloc constituency politicians care about. Too many with mental illnesses live in confines of an irrational stigma that does not belong in the 21st century. Their disabilities typically impede any ability to organizes and fight for support.

Polis and his majority in the Legislature can change this in 2019.

A state that subsidizes high-wage professionals to commute in "Bustang" limo-busses can afford more help for the mentally ill. A state aggressively pursuing "renewables" can afford to address this problem. A state with the country's highest subsidy for $84,000 Teslas should not turn away the mentally ill until they get arrested. A state that gives an $81 million subsidy to wealthy for-profit developers of the Gaylord Rockies Resort can afford more psychiatric beds.

Politicians awash in a $1.22 billion revenue surplus cannot claim poverty, helplessly accepting the rise in suicide and homelessness.

We have a new governor with a proven record of private-sector problem solving. He and his party should address this issue quickly, without demanding new taxes. It won't serve a massive constituency, but it is the right thing to do.

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