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Wyden meets with mental health leaders on bill

Sen. Ron Wyden

Mental health leaders in Jackson County gave input Friday to U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, on how to address barriers to mental health as he gathers input for proposed legislation.

During a morning session at the Phoenix Civic Center, participants brought up issues ranging from housing and difficulty finding employees to the need for a one-stop center to help those with mental health issues, and the cut-off of aid programs when individuals are incarcerated.

Wyden, Senate Finance Committee chairman, and Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, Finance ranking member, have launched an effort to develop bipartisan legislation to address barriers to mental health care, and the COVID-19 pandemic, which has worsened trends in mental health care.

“This is really about the mental health challenge that isn’t Democratic or Republican,” Wyden told the gathering. “Your input today is going to be needed for a bipartisan bill.”

Reports of anxiety and depression among adults have quadrupled, overdose deaths have increased by 30%, and pediatric emergency department visits for mental health emergencies have risen significantly, the senators wrote in a letter to Finance Committee members. Meanwhile, fewer than half of adults with mental health illness and 40% of children with depression receive treatment.

Inability to staff programs is a concern as the pandemic has impacted job seekers, said Julia Jackson, director of behavioral health for Jackson Care Connect, a nonprofit coordinated care organization. Employees can find better pay in other industries that have raised wages, she said after the session.

“We are seeing unprecedented closures in programs,” said Jackson. “There is still just a shortage.”

United Way of Jackson County Director Dee Ann Everson said housing is a big issue for the county and that work must be done around both housing and health care, including mental health, which are intertwined.

Caren Caldwell, of National Alliance on Mental Illness, called for the creation of a navigation center where people could receive one-stop service.

“What you need is a center to coordinate all patient needs. It’s a best practice,” said Caldwell.

Other speakers said such a center does not exist in Jackson County, but Rick Rawling, manager of crisis and outpatient services with Jackson County Public Health, said there is a 24-hour hotline.

“Part of the issue is addiction. That is a huge issue,” said Jackson County Sheriff Nate Sickler. When individuals are incarcerated, they lose assistance they may have had, which can disrupt treatment programs. Everson noted the same circumstance applies to juveniles.

Elise Travertini, director of youth services for La Clinica, said schools could play a role in helping with mental health issues. Ways to stop behaviors before they become crises need to be explored, she suggested.

Phoenix Mayor Terry Baker noted that a number of people who live along the Bear Creek Greenway may not be comfortable going to a facility to seek assistance.

“Can we find a way to reach? They won’t come,” said Baker. “We need places where people get services, but we also need to reach out where they are at.”

Wyden said several programs will provide funding that should help with mental health issues. One appropriation supports law enforcement and mental health personnel working together. The infrastructure bill pending in the House of Representatives includes money for broadband, which would support more telehealth services. But he said collaboration will be needed to deal with the mental health barriers.

“This is a collaborative effort,” said Jackson, referring to the many parties at the table who are already working together. “It’s all coming together. We have a pretty exciting collaboration down here, but are excited to hear about the dollars coming also.”

“I’m not convinced the big insurance companies are following the parity laws,” said Wyden. Those laws require mental health issues to be covered the same way as physical health issues. Measures for improving parity law compliance will be included in the proposed bill

By the end of the year, Wyden said, he and his colleagues hope to see action on the bill in the Finance Committee.

Others at the session included Athena Goldberg, behavioral health director with AllCare; Dr. Alicia Bond, medical director with Mercy Flights; Lauri Hoagland, behavioral health director with La Clinica; and Oregon District 5 Rep. Pam Marsh.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Tony Boom at tboomwriter@gmail.com.