A bipartisan group of lawmakers grilled state officials Wednesday for not doing more to address the rise in mental health issues among Illinois children. [Health News Illinois 12.9..2021]
Speaking during a joint legislative hearing on the issue, Rep. Deb Conroy, a Villa Park Democrat and chair of the House’s Mental Health and Addiction Committee, said the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the long-simmering issue of behavioral healthcare for children.
“I would consider this to be a crisis, and a crisis that we needed to act on yesterday,” she said.
Dr. Frank Belmonte, chief medical officer at Advocate Children's Hospital, echoed Conroy’s concern. He said some are calling the situation the “fourth wave of the pandemic,” marked by record incidents of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts in children and families.
“Unfortunately, this crisis rests upon an already under-resourced behavioral health infrastructure that is simply unable to handle the massive tsunami of children and adolescents who need help now,” Belmonte said. “The inadequacy of resources is felt at every level of the care continuum, including outpatient partial hospitalization, inpatient, acute psychiatry and residential treatment.”
Dr. David Gomel, CEO of Rosecrance Health Network, told lawmakers that many children either wait in emergency rooms or have to be sent out of their communities - and sometimes out of state - to receive mental health services.
“Alternatively, in far too many cases, kids simply don't receive the care they need,” Gomel said. “When kids don't get treatment, they cycle through hospitalizations and crisis services, their behaviors escalate, they lose time in school or they become involved with the legal system. All these options are bad for kids and their families, are clinically inappropriate and are expensive for the state.”
He added the crisis has disproportionately impacted minorities.
Lawmakers questioned representatives of the Department of Healthcare and Family Services on concerns raised by advocates, while also calling on the agency to do more now to help families in crisis.
Kristine Herman, chief of HFS' Bureau of Behavioral Health, told lawmakers they have worked on interim relief for parents to access psychiatric residential treatment facilities services for their children. Additionally, the agency continues the planning of its behavioral health model, known as the Pathways to Success Program.
“HFS’ Pathways to Success Program focuses on the importance of building community-based services first, and introducing residential treatment services at a time in a way that's going to ensure quality and appropriate oversight,” Herman said.
She said they are still working with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to gain federal approval for the program, with the hope it can be implemented in the coming months.
Conroy said that was not enough.
“In the meantime, families are falling apart and children are dying,” she said. “So we need to put a crisis plan in place until a few months from now.”
Herman shared concerns raised by lawmakers about the workforce necessary to implement the program, though she said many providers have submitted their applications to become care coordination and support organizations to support staffing.
Lawmakers also called on Gov. JB Pritzker’s administration to take the mental health crisis as seriously as it has taken the COVID-19 pandemic. Conroy said Wednesday’s meeting reinforced the need for Pritzker to appoint a mental health czar in Illinois to help address the issue.
She filed legislation earlier this year to establish a mental health and substance use disorder oversight officer within the Department of Human Services to make policy recommendations and encourage, promote, suggest and report best practices for treating mental health and substance use disorders in Illinois.
“I just want to take this moment yet again, and it will not be a surprise to anyone, to beg our governor to please - we have a marijuana czar - we need a mental health czar,” Conroy said.
Pritzker's office did not return a request for comment.
Laura Fine, a Democrat from Glenview and chair of the Senate’s Behavioral and Mental Health Committee, said she hoped the passions shown during the roughly three-and-a-half-hour meeting would help lead to change down the road.
“Let's use that anger and frustration to drive us forward and get this issue solved,” she said. “It's been going on too long, and lives are hanging in the balance. We need to get it done."