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SALT LAKE CITY — A new Utah bill would require agencies in the state to offer mental health resources for first responders and their families.
Under HB23, the state would provide $5 million to agencies to help them start new programs or improve existing mental health programs, said bill sponsor Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, during a House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee meeting on Monday.
He hopes the bill will "lay down what will now be a new state policy across the board for how we handle mental health and peer support for all of our first responders," Wilcox said.
The bill is intended to "really to make sure that we don't miss anybody" affected by the strain that can come from being a first responder. It mandates resources for a first responder's spouse and/or children, as well as retired first responders.
The bill covers law enforcement officers, emergency medical technicians, paramedics, firefighters, dispatchers, correctional officers, and search and rescue workers including volunteers.
Wilcox added correctional officers and search and rescue workers to the bill after hearing feedback from the community. Some might be volunteers, "but they're the same people we call on when there's an emergency, when there's no one else to call," Wilcox said.
The mental health resources all agencies would be required to provide under the bill include access to a mental health therapist through outpatient mental health treatment or peer support services.
The $5 million isn't intended to keep the programs running permanently, and local agencies will need to fund their own programs in the long run, Wilcox said.
He said he originally asked for $10 million to fund the bill, but was offered $5 million by legislative leadership.
"There are many, many of our agencies are already coming with plans with what we're asking for," Wilcox said, adding that the funds will help lift those programs off the ground.
When asked whether the state could provide more funding for the programs in the future, Wilcox said his "eyes are wide open" for future funding but other aspects of the bill are more vital.
Agencies like Utah's Department of Public Safety already have mental health programs in place, he noted.
"Many of our large agencies are already doing that, so whatever form (funding) will end up taking long term, the policy part right now is the most important part to me, that we get that established," he said.
Several first responder groups spoke in support of the bill.
Retired Ogden Police Chief Randy Watt, representing Ogden and the Utah Police Chiefs Association, called the bill "outstanding."
It received a unanimous favorable recommendation from the committee, meaning it will move to the House for a vote.