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Lawmakers consider proposal to give consumers a greater voice in behavioral health policy

A bill would train people who have received behavioral health services how to navigate the state’s system and advocate
A bill in the Legislature would give guidance to help people navigate behavioral health services in Oregon and advocate with the state. | OREGON HEALTH AUTHORITY
March 2, 2023

Oregon’s behavioral health system is fragmented and difficult to access because there are too few resources.

A proposal in the Legislature would advise people on how to access and advocate for their behavioral health needs. It also would involve residents in the state’s decision-making and policy work around behavioral health.

Senate Bill 432, discussed Wednesday in the Senate Health Committee, would require the Oregon Health Authority to set up a program to increase the involvement of people who have received or are receiving behavioral health services. 

The bill comes amid a behavioral health crisis in Oregon that manifests itself in different ways, with the state consistently ranked nationally as having the worst access to care. Inmates in jails wait for care at the Oregon State Hospital. Community mental health programs can’t treat all patients. The state lacks beds in residential facilities for people.

Thousands are affected.

Providence Health and Services and Legacy Health, two large behavioral health providers in Oregon, support the proposal. The measure started with the Oregon Mental Health Consumers Association, a small Portland-based nonprofit that lobbies to give residents a greater voice in the state’s behavioral health system.

“It will provide guidance and support to help individuals navigate complex service systems, as well as train and educate individuals on the technical aspects of service systems and policy,” said Kevin Fitts, the president of the association.

The goal is to give everyone a voice at the table, said Sen. Cedric Hayden, R-Roseburg and vice-chair of the Senate Health Committee. He’s the chief sponsor of the bipartisan bill, which also is sponsored by Sens. Michael Dembrow and Lew Frederick, both Portland Democrats.

Under the bill, the state would contract with a peer-run organization to guide the project and reach people. Peers are people who have firsthand experience with behavioral health care that helps them relate to the people they help. These groups would inform them of  their rights and available benefits and help them apply for the Oregon Health Plan, the state’s Medicaid-funded plan for low-income Oregonians. The program would also try to get consumers involved in state decisions about behavioral health care. 

This is not the first proposal aimed at consumers. The state had a similar assistance program in the 1990s, which was trimmed during budget cuts.

The bill would provide $750,000 annually for the project.

The authority would provide technical assistance and work with peer-run groups to help people, which supporters say strikes the right balance between giving a voice to consumers and offering them the necessary support. 

“Peer-run organizations play a critical role in supporting individuals with behavioral health needs,” Robin Henderson, chief executive of behavioral health at Providence Health & Services, said in submitted testimony. “SB 432 will add resources to improve services and supports for these organizations so they can better serve their communities.”

Henderson added the bill would enable people to become “more effective in delivering the key messages we all need to hear if we are going to transform behavioral health in Oregon.”

The president of Legacy Health, which operates Unity Center for Behavioral Health, a 107-bed inpatient psychiatric facility, said the measure comes at a good time. The bill would create a way for the state to get input from people with diverse backgrounds, including the formerly incarcerated, people of different ages, Black, indigenous and people of color, veterans, and people of different sexual orientations and gender identities, Melissa Eckstein, president of Unity Center for Behavioral Health said in submitted testimony.

Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran, also an emergency room physician, supports the measure as well.

She said she’s seen “well-intentioned and extremely well-funded policies fail” at implementation because they lacked the expertise and insight of people directly impacted by the decision.

People who try to navigate a non-existent behavioral health system need help, she said, adding they often end up in crisis and board in hospital emergency rooms.

The bill still faces a vote in the committee, which isn’t yet scheduled. That needs to be scheduled by March 17 to continue in the Legislature.

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