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Peakview School, shown here in a March 23, 2021 photo, is a Preschool through eighth grade school in Walsenburg, Colo. According to the school's website, enrollment is approximately at 330.(Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Every Coloradan age 18 and younger would have access to a free mental health screening and as many as three free subsequent visits with a mental health professional under a new, bipartisan bill at the state Capitol aimed at helping kids deal with the effects of the coronavirus crisis.

House Bill 1258 represents one of the most aggressive behavioral health initiatives in Colorado history and would come with a one-time allocation of $9 million. 

The measure calls for the creation of an online portal where children can fill out an assessment and then connect with providers if needed. 

“We know that kids who are getting the support that they need are healthier and more successful at school,” said state Rep. Dafna Michaeson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat who is a prime sponsor of the legislation. “If we can get that to every kid in Colorado? Game-changer.”

The measure expands on Michaelson Jenet’s idea, first reported by The Colorado Sun earlier this year, to check in with every Colorado student after a tumultuous, coronavirus-marred school year by offering them free mental health screening before the start of next academic year.

Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, D-Commerce City, speaks about mental health parity to the audience at The Colorado Sun’s Big Ideas 2020 Forum at the Cable Center on the University of Denver campus on Jan. 14, 2020. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

In February, when she first floated the proposal, it was unclear if there would be enough money — or political willpower — to make it a reality. 

But then Gov. Jared Polis’ administration offered a similar proposal, and two ideas joined in the form of House Bill 1258.

The legislation appears to be on a fast-track to passage. Its funding comes from an $800 million state coronavirus stimulus package that lawmakers are still unveiling, and which includes money for everything from infrastructure upgrades to restaurant tax relief to drought-resiliency programs. The bill is supported by Democratic leadership at the Capitol and has a Republican primer sponsor in Rep. Kevin Van Winkle, of Highlands Ranch.

The $9 million appropriated for House Bill 1258 would have to be spent by June 30, 2022, the end of the next fiscal year. The money would go to providers to reimburse them for their time.

Michaelson Jenet hopes the mental health screenings can begin before the end of the current academic year. “If we are able to do that, that would be phenomenal,” she said. 

Children’s Hospital Colorado says it has seen a sharp spike in mental health-related visits and the group Mental Health America says there has been an increase in kids reporting feeling lonely. Anecdotally, parents across Colorado have reported mental health issues among their children as they’ve been isolated from friends during the pandemic. A string of teen suicides on the Eastern Plains was blamed on coronavirus restrictions.

Sen. Janet Buckner, an Aurora Democrat, is also a prime sponsor of the bill. The former speech and language therapist said she thinks the legislation will have a big, lasting impact.

Proponents also see the measure as a school-safety initiative. Michaelson Jenet said asking kids to return to school without a mental-health check in is akin to putting students in a pressure cooker.

House Bill 1258 aims to ensure that kids who access mental health services don’t fall off the map after their three free visits with a provider. To allow for continuity of care, the legislation calls on the state to help connect kids with a therapist in their insurance network once their free visits are used up. 

If there’s money available, kids may also be able to access more than three free visits.

At $9 million, the funding for House Bill 1258 is one of the more sizable pools of money set aside so far as part of the state coronavirus stimulus package. But Michaelson Jenet thinks it’s not too much.

“I’m worried that it won’t be enough,” she said. “In order for it to not be enough we need to do our job really well on the back end of this passing and make sure we get word-of-mouth (marketing) and communities involved and engaged. Quite frankly, I hope we run out of money and need to find more.”

People between 19 and 22 years old could also access free counseling under the bill if they are receiving special-education services.

The legislation has not yet been scheduled for its first committee hearing.

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....