DENVER | Days after a gunman entered an Aurora movie theater, killing 12 moviegoers and injuring 70 others, Gov. John Hickenlooper and Colorado health officials began talking about revamping a state mental health system that had been devastated by budget cuts.
On Thursday, the Democratic governor signed into law an expansion of mental health services in response to July’s Aurora shootings. By early next year, the state plans to establish walk-in crisis centers around Colorado, a 24-hour mental health hotline, and mobile units to travel to rural areas where access to mental health services is limited.
Lawmakers budgeted nearly $20 million for the expansion, which includes more short-term residential services.
Thursday’s law was largely inspired by the case of James Holmes, who is charged in the Aurora shootings.
Holmes’ lawyers say he is mentally ill, and he’s entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity.
Holmes had been seeing a psychiatrist at the University of Colorado, where he was a graduate student, before the shooting.
That psychiatrist, Dr. Lynne Fenton, told a campus police officer before the July 20 shootings that Holmes had threatened and intimidated her about a month before. He was not placed on a 72-hour psychiatric hold.
Hickenlooper announced the mental health initiatives in December, just days after the mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school. He acknowledged at the time that there would never be “fail-safe system” to prevent violence. But he said expanding services would be a wise investment, noting, “The common element of so many of these mass homicides seems to be a level of mental illness.”
Colorado lawmakers also responded to the theater shootings by passing limits on ammunition magazines and broadening background checks to include online and private firearm purchases.
The National Rifle Association opposed those measures. The head of the NRA, David Keene, told The Associated Press around the time the bills were introduced that lawmakers were focusing too much on banning certain guns instead of fixing what he called a “devastatingly broken mental health system in this country.”
Arvada Democratic Rep. Tracy Kraft-Tharp, a sponsor of the bill to increase mental health services, said the mass shootings made the issue a priority after years of budget cuts since the 2002 recession.
“The mental health system received some drastic cuts and we haven’t been able to recover,” she said.
Currently, some people seeking help go to hospital emergency rooms, where they sometimes can wait for hours. Or they go to the state’s mental hospitals in Pueblo and Fort Logan, where the number of beds has decreased, Kraft-Tharp said.
In the past five years alone, the state hospitals lost about 110 beds, and several private hospitals have closed their mental health inpatient units or reduced capacity, according to the Colorado Department of Human Services.
Reggie Bicha, the executive director of the department, said law enforcement officers are often the ones who come across people suffering from mental health problems. Bicha said officers have few choices in offering help: They can take them to a relative’s home, to jail, or the emergency room.
“All three of those are not the right options for folks in crisis,” Bicha said.
Kraft-Tharp said she hopes the new law will “be a relief for all of our systems that are currently providing emergency care.”
Also Thursday, Hickenlooper signed a bill to study how to consolidate Colorado laws for placing someone in involuntary commitment — an element that what was part of his call to expand mental health services. Lawmakers say the goal is to eliminate confusion and make it easier for judges to understand the basis for emergency holds.
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