Iowa lawmakers getting serious about mental health

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DES MOINES, Iowa (WOI) -- Iowa lawmakers are getting serious about mental health.

They passed a bill this month that significantly improves Iowa's mental health system.

People who have fought for these changes for years are hoping this is just the beginning.

This bill will essentially create more options and access for the thousands of Iowans who suffer from mental illness.

For years, Iowa's mental health system has been criticized for not doing enough. Now, advocates are happy to finally see some progress.

The Iowa Chapter of the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) says the new legislation will finally help some of Iowa's most vulnerable. The bill calls for at least six regional centers spread across the state to improve access for Iowans suffering from mental illness.

"We need a place that if they don't medically need to be in a hospital, they can receive the attention they need for their psychiatric disorder and being in crisis, with people who know and understand how to deal with that," said Peggy Huppert, Executive Director of NAMI Iowa. "The vision is that no one is more than 90 minutes away from this kind of facility."

The bill will increase the number of treatment teams who make sure patients' needs are being met, from 10 to 22. It also establishes the need for specific psychiatric hospitals to act as hubs of expertise, similar to cancer centers.

Law enforcement agencies -- like the Polk County Sheriff's Office -- have been advocating for changes, too. They say the regional centers will help them save money and manpower.

"You can have a mental health patient on one side of the state with a hearing on the other side of the state, and you have to take the time to pick them up, take them to their hearing, go back to the other side of the state, drop them off, and it's a full load," said Lt. Richard Blaylock with the Polk County Sheriff's Office.

But, more importantly, it'll free up the deputies who help those patients.

"It will lighten their workload and they can actually do more for more people," Lt. Blaylock said.

Right now, NAMI Iowa's biggest concern is making sure the state will actually fund these new facilities. NAMI says this is a great first step, but they aren't stopping here. These mental health improvements are for adult patients. They say they're now working so that children can get the same care.

Governor Kim Reynolds is expected to sign the bill into law Thursday morning at the Statehouse.

View the original story on WOI's website.