The Denver skyline on July 23, 2020. (Quentin Young/Colorado Newsline)
Two years after President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act into law, Colorado has seen an increase in small business applications, improved internet access to rural areas and expansion of the child tax credit across the state. But the American Rescue Plan has helped to shed light on a gap in Denver residents’ access to one area of care: behavioral health services.
According to a new study from Denver’s Department of Public Health and Environment, roughly 4 in 10 people surveyed who sought behavioral health options, such as psychiatrist, emergency or residential mental health services, were unable to receive them.
The study, funded by ARPA funds, emphasizes the effects the pandemic had on vulnerable communities and offers recommendations on how to address them.
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“The goal of the needs assessment was to understand the current behavioral health landscape in our community, including unmet needs and barriers people face when seeking services,” said Bob McDonald, executive director of the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment. “Findings from the assessment, while not necessarily surprising, will help us more intentionally direct funding to those areas.”
More findings from the study found that behavioral health service access issues are significantly higher for marginalized groups, such as people experiencing poverty, those without health insurance, LGBTQ+ people and people of color. Access issues also extend to providers themselves, with one-third of providers interviewed for the study stating their organization can only meet 50% or less of the demand for their services from the Denver communities they serve.
DDPHE has a variety of proposed solutions on how to address these issues. Some potential remedies include increasing the number of health providers, increasing advertisement of language access services, and extending hours of operation for providers.
“We’re committed to making support for mental and behavioral health easily accessible and available to everyone in Denver who needs it,” said Denver Mayor Michael Hancock. “Using ARPA funding, we’re able to put millions of dollars towards programming that will help us ensure everyone who needs care gets it as quickly as possible.”
In addition to the assessment by DDPHE, the department also received $20 million from ARPA to build out programs based on the recommendations from the citywide study. In engagement with over 12,000 Denverites about how the city should responsibly invest ARPA funds, a majority of stakeholders affected most by the COVID-19 pandemic recommended the need for programming that includes more supportive and wrap-around services for those who need mental health care or substance use treatment.
Implementation of these recommendations is still far off in the city’s future, but some headway has been. In fall of 2022, DDPHE initiated a contract with Servicios de la Raza to assist with the city’s Support Team Assisted Response program.
For further insights, DDPHE also recommended additional survey data that considers what key drivers could increase community success in accessing needed behavioral health services and what could reduce time, effort and waiting period for behavioral health services.
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