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New behavioral health system will compassionately put people first

I gazed out the window at the snow-covered peaks and patchwork fields below as my plane approached the tarmac at Denver International Airport. Wheels down at last. I had arrived at my new home – a brilliant blue sky overhead and blinding snow as far as the eye could see.

Medlock

It is hard to wrap my mind around how such a majestic place can also possess one of the country’s highest rates of suicide and prevalence of mental health challenges. My mission? Harness the momentum that has driven an unprecedented two-year planning effort to bring about transformational change in Colorado’s behavioral health system so that it truly and compassionately puts people first.

I am humbled that Gov. Jared Polis has appointed me to serve as Colorado’s first behavioral health commissioner to lead the new Behavioral Health Administration, which we will launch by July. This clinically trained mental health and addiction treatment practitioner has come to Colorado at an urgent and exciting moment. We are on the verge of making history and have a real opportunity to develop a system that is equitable, accountable and effective.

The BHA we build will oversee a system that serves all of Colorado, provides care that is timely and helps people find success by achieving whole-person health and well-being. When we get this right, our state stands to become an exemplar on the national stage of what it means to provide person-centered, community-based and data-informed behavioral health care.

When I worked as an emergency department psychiatrist in Boston, I saw firsthand how the scarcity of behavioral health treatment options in the community and the stigma of seeking support can result in our family, friends and neighbors landing in some of their darkest moments. The BHA we build will be driven by individuals with this lived experience.

By July, we will have established an Advisory Council that is diverse in its membership and co-chaired by someone with lived experience. Council meetings will be inclusive and accessible, held in different parts of the state, with attendance and input widely encouraged and sought out. In the same vein, I am proud that the BHA’s first official action has been to sponsor five individuals to participate in the College for Behavioral Health Leadership’s Equity-Grounded Leadership Fellow Program pilot this spring. The program’s goal is to empower and equip leaders to take bold action to unravel systemic racism and create equitable behavioral health systems in their communities.

Sadly, we are all too familiar with the tragic stories of Colorado’s behavioral health safety net failing our state’s most vulnerable citizens, including those from marginalized populations. Individuals with complex needs are turned away, insurance coverage is inadequate or nonexistent, appointments are unavailable.

The BHA we build will be transparent, accountable and effective. We will define new metrics that will help us identify and design solutions to fill the gaps and ensure Coloradans are benefiting from timely services that are culturally responsive and meet the highest standards of care. We will use data to measure our progress toward fortifying and expanding our safety net so that we catch people before they find themselves in crisis. And we will publish our findings in a transparent and accessible way through public dashboards and reporting to the General Assembly.

We are making history. Join us. I am committed to working with patients, partners and other stakeholders to build an equitable and just system of behavioral health care for Colorado.

The BHA we build will bring partners together to align our funding and resources under a unified vision and strategy for transforming our behavioral health system. This strategy will be bold, be based in empathy, integrity and data, and will always put people first.

Morgan Medlock, M.D., is the commissioner of the Colorado Behavioral Health Authority, a new state agency which will launch by July.