House Bill bill focuses on first responder mental health
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A Magnolia lawmaker hopes a group study can help tackle a perceived problem with first responders' access and use of mental health services.

State Rep. Cecil Bell filed House Bill 1794, which would create the Work Group on Mental Health Access for First Responders, a proposed 14-person panel that will study different issues first responders might have with obtaining mental health care, including stigmas, access and costs. The work group would provide its recommendations to the Texas governor, lieutenant governor and Legislature in late 2018.

"It seems like our first responders are not comfortable with reaching out," Bell said, "and it's creating challenges."

The group would consist of Sam Houston State University's College of Criminal Justice dean, Dr. Phillip Lyons, three mental health professionals and two representatives each from fire and police departments. A representative of the state's sheriffs would be on the panel as well as two members representing emergency medical personnel.

One representative each from municipal governments, county governments and the Texas Department of Insurance would be on the panel. Bell said a representative from the state's 911 dispatchers, who are often the first emergency personnel member to encounter a crime or incident, might have a seat at the table.

The group is charged with, among other things, identifying Texas-specific stigmas or barriers for the first responders who seek mental healthcare services.

"Not being a first responder … I can see why I think perhaps stigma is assigned to that," Bell said. "I can see where it sometimes happens on the legislative side. But what I know for sure is that the body of cohorts is the best group to determine how to address those challenges."

The group is also to look at the difference in access to mental health care between smaller departments, like volunteer fire departments or small municipal police departments, and larger departments. While looking at whether the first responder's department provides adequate insurance for mental health care, the group also will look at whether the first responder is able to keep their normal job when they self-report a mental health issue.

"If a first responder comes forward and says 'I need some help,' there's a good likelihood they'll find themselves behind a desk," Bell said. "They may not need to be behind a desk. They may need to just talk to someone."

The group will look at potential solutions for state and local governments to provide greater access to mental health care, the sufficiency of first responder organizations' human resource policies, the effectiveness of workers' compensation and other benefit claims for first responders, and the feasibility of mental health training during licensing or certification and renewal process for first responders. They will look at the effectiveness of methods for assessing a first responder's mental healthcare needs after a critical incident and opportunities of public-private partnerships to provide mental healthcare services to first responders.

The group's recommendations are not set in stone, Bell said, although he and his colleagues will determine what the best options for Texas first responders are moving forward with the group's recommendations.

"Absent those cohorts having a venue to be able to sit and determine the best solution, we will continue to leave this matter either unresolved or we will find it held in the hands of people who don't do those things that are being reviewed," Bell said. "You'll have people who aren't first responders come up with a plan for how you address a problem. This particular study makes certain that the concerns of this bill are addressed by the people who know what the challenges are and who know what the solutions are but didn't have a place to say them."

Filed Feb. 13, House Bill 1794 has yet to be placed in a committee.

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