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State Legislature Makes Historic Investment In Behavioral Health Care: 'We're Going To Save Lives'

DENVER (CBS4) - New laws signed by Gov. Jared Polis will make the largest investment in behavioral health care in Colorado history. For Sen. Brittany Pettersen, the legislation is the culmination of five years of work and a momentous chapter in an against-all-odds kind of story.

"You don't often see people who are elected who had a parent who struggled with addiction, especially a heroin addiction," said Pettersen whose mom struggled with addiction for years.

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Sen. Brittany Pettersen (credit: CBS)

Pettersen is one of the lead sponsors of new law aimed at transforming pain management in Colorado. It requires insurers to cover things like acupuncture and physical therapy the same as primary care.

"It is cheaper to give someone a bottle opioids, where they have a high risk of becoming addicted, than to give them alternatives for their addressing pain. That's what this bill is going to do," said Pettersen.

Rep. Leslie Herod co-sponsored the bill. Her sister has also struggled with addiction.

(credit: Rep. Leslie Herod)

"This has been one of the deadliest years for overdoses in the state of Colorado and across the country," Herod said.

Deaths from suicides also hit a record high last year in Colorado. Gov. Polis signed laws funding mental health disaster response teams and a new 9-8-8 suicide hotline. Rep. Lisa Cutter sponsored both bills.

"When you're in crisis, three numbers: 9-8-8, and help will be there," Cutter said.

Another law allocates $100 million for crisis care in places like jails, community mental health centers and schools. Lawmakers set aside $450 million in federal stimulus dollars for long-term changes in the behavioral health system. A task force will provide recommendations before the next legislative session.

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(credit: CBS)

"We're not only just handing out money, where also changing systems and structures to ensure that we're going to save lives and know that these bills will," said Herod.

The legislature also passed a bill that requires insurers to cover a mental wellness exam each year just like they do a physical. Lawmakers also passed a bill that allows every K-12 student in Colorado to have three paid visits with a mental health professional.

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