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Arkansas legislators are compiling a report to recommend legislation during the 2023 session aimed at bolstering mental and behavioral health services for Arkansans of all ages and incomes.

The Joint Health Services Subcommittee met Monday to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the state’s existing mental and behavioral health care resources, in accordance with a 2021 law requiring the Legislature to recommend potential 2023 policy changes.

Rep. DeAnn Vaught (R-Horatio) sponsored the 2021 law and told the subcommittee she hoped the discussion would lead to policies that make Arkansas a “flagship” example of mental health care infrastructure for other states to follow.

“I was hearing from providers that there wasn’t a good bridge between them and DHS,” she said, referring to the state Department of Human Services. “I thought the best way to handle this is to all come together in one room and do the very best we can to try to move mental health to the top of people’s lists.”

The Legislature has a Mental Health/Behavioral Health Working Group split into several subgroups. Vaught chairs the Prevention and Early Intervention subgroup, and she said it has considered creating a DHS role that would focus on collaboration between state agencies to help Arkansans in crisis or at risk of crisis.

“A lot of these groups had no idea what each group was doing, and maybe if we had somebody in charge of that, those bridges could be built much faster than they’re being built right now,” Vaught said.

The chairs of the subgroups will write up a report of Monday’s discussion and submit it to the Arkansas Legislative Council for further review.

More than 34,000 children and nearly 15,000 adults in Arkansas with behavioral health issues “are not responding” to outpatient counseling, and they need home-based and community-based services so they can avoid crises that might put them in psychiatric hospital settings, according to data provided by DHS.

Over 55,000 Arkansans are enrolled in DHS’ Provider-Led Arkansas Shared Savings Entity (PASSE), a program for Medicaid recipients with complex behavioral health, developmental or intellectual disabilities.

DHS staff studied the program and determined that most PASSE members receive the services they need, but others do not receive services in the amount or duration necessary to meet their needs, said Melissa Weatherton, DHS’ Director of the Division of Developmental Disabilities Services.

The department recently received a report on its services that will further help with policy recommendations, Weatherton said.

“We are seeing services that we think would be beneficial to PASSE members and yet are not being utilized,” she said.

DHS Secretary Mark White emphasized that the department is working on policy changes involving much more than just Medicaid-reimbursable services, though these services are a frequent topic of discussion regarding potential improvements.

“We want (health care providers) to partner with good organizations providing other resources as well,” White said. “We know the social determinants of health. We know those impact individuals and their ability to recover and do well. Whether it’s housing or employment or education, we want hospitals to find those community partners and direct folks as they need.”

Shawna Burns, a counselor and the owner of a mental health practice in Harrison, said the Legislature’s efforts give her “hope” that mental and behavioral health care will become more accessible to Arkansans.

Mental health care providers throughout the state are “weary” because there are not enough of them to meet their communities’ needs in a timely manner, Burns said, and most providers have waiting lists of several months.

“When a child is suicidal and in crisis, and they cannot get in for help, that’s too long,” she said.

A lot of people misperceive mental health as simply helping someone manage their symptoms and stay alive, Burns said. In reality, there are more possibilities, she added.

“There are so many things that we can do to not only help people get better but stay better and completely overcome their problems,” Burns said.

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