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New Law Puts More Doctors & Therapists Under One Roof

DENVER (CBS4) - At Tepeyac Community Health Center, "treating the whole the person" is not just some catchphrase, it's a core function of the clinic located in Denver's Globeville neighborhood. It has an equal number of doctors and therapists, and Clinic Director Dr. Pamela Valenza says they often tag-team.

"And then a behavioral health provider will then go into that room and meet with the patient in real time when they came in just to see their doctor," Valenza said.

That seamless handoff, from medical to mental health provider, has become the model in health care and a new law will help expand it statewide. The law, signed on Wednesday by Gov. Jared Polis, provides $35 million in grants over the next two years and another $4 million the following two years to help create more so-called integrated care practices where patients can see a medical provider and mental health provider in the same visit.

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"We know what best practice is. We just have to expand it to the rest of the state," said Sen. Sonya Jaquez Lewis, who co-sponsored the bill with Representative Chris Kennedy after a pilot program showed success.

In 2015, the state received federal grant money to facilitate the merger of about 350 primary care clinics and behavioral health practices. A federal study found more people got therapy and fewer were hospitalized as a result of integrated care. So, when Colorado received millions of dollars in COVID relief, Jaquez Lewis and Kennedy decided to expand the delivery model across the state.

"We believe this is such fundamental thing to creating a better more inclusive health care system," said Kennedy.

Tepeyac Community Health Center is ahead of its time. Valenza says they began integrated care about 10 years ago.

"If you're going to a health center that doesn't have integrated care, what you get is a referral. And, if that patient might call, and they might have a 3-4 month waiting list."

Many of Tepeyac's patients, she says, couldn't even get on the waitlists because they're uninsured or underinsured. Even those with insurance have trouble accessing therapists.

Jaquez Lewis says the bill helps create true parity in health care.

"We will be able to integrate physical health care immediately with behavioral health care."

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While $39 million is a lot of money, Valenza says it will pay off in the long run.

"When we prevent hospitalizations, that person will be a more functioning person able to hold a job so it really has ripples across the socio-economic plane."

The legislature allocated $450 million for behavioral health care during the 2022 session to, among other things, incentivize more people to become therapists and increase the number of residential treatment beds in the state.

This Thursday is Mental Health Action Day, and CBS News Colorado is streaming a Community Conversation on Mental Health. You can catch the special right after CBS4 News at 6 p.m. on May 19.

CBS News Colorado is partnering with MTV on "Mental Health is Health" seeking to improve mental health in our community by normalizing conversation about mental health, sharing resources, and highlighting groups taking action to help others thrive.

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