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SALT LAKE CITY — The Senate Education Committee on Friday endorsed legislation that would allow certain mental health services provided in Utah public schools to be billed to Medicaid.
SB106, sponsored by Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, also says health care plans could not deny claims solely because they are provided by a public school employee or in a school.
Fillmore said his legislative district includes Herriman, which experienced a spate of teen and young adult deaths by suicide last year. He noted that Jordan School District employs 65 school psychologists who provide clinical mental health services to students who need help.
"Because they work in schools, claims that they submit are often denied by insurance companies and the state's Medicaid program doesn't have a mental health option for students in schools, even though our Medicaid does provide reimbursement to schools that may provide occupational therapy or physical therapy," he said.
Fillmore said passing the bill should "open up new private sector dollars to flow to public schools to help address the need we have in schools for more mental health services for our students."
Kelly Atkinson, executive director of the Utah Health Insurance Association, said the bill, as currently drafted, "was giving quite a bit of heartburn even Prilosec wouldn't touch."
Care must be taken so the legislation does not expand benefits. Otherwise, people will "vote with their feet," and some will move from being fully insured in plans that cover mental health to self insured, he said.
"That's why it's so critical to work out a compromise in language that does not expand the benefit," Atkinson said.
Several others spoke in support of the bill, some of them school teachers in rural Utah whose students need mental services and have few options in their small communities.
Jolynn Jones, a math teacher at Richfield High School, said one of her students took his life at the start of the school year.
"I thank the senator for bringing this forward. It takes a lot of weight off high school teachers," Jones said.
Camille Bailey Aagard, a mother of five children and a law student, said her family lives behind Lone Peak High School, another school that has been hard hit by youth suicide. Students walk through their back yard to school.
"When I see them in Sunday best, I know that we have experienced another suicide," she said.
The problem has reached "epidemic" proportion, she said.
"I just hope you won't yield to insurance lobbyists. Just the fact that teachers are the ones that are having to absorb this seems absurd to me."
Fillmore said some school psychologists also have private practices on weekends or in the evenings.
If a child sees that professional at 5 p.m. in an office down the street, "it's covered. If the child sees the professional at 2 o'clock in the school building, it's not covered by insurance. This bill address that specific issue," he said.
With the committee's approval, SB106 moves to the Senate for its consideration.