A bill that would have created standards for mental health services at Missouri’s public universities failed to pass in the 2017 legislative session, but the group behind the bill is now pushing a new, modified version in hopes of it receiving the governor’s signature.
The proposal for the 2018 session was rewritten to remove the possibility that financial penalties would be imposed on universities that fail to meet the standards, said Steven Chaffin, executive director of Associated Students of the University of Missouri, the student lobbying group behind the bill.
The student group is calling for universities to self-evaluate and self-report how well they are meeting the standards and come up with a three-year plan to address any deficiencies.
Chaffin said he hopes the changes will create an incentive for universities to follow the standards.
“Imagine that you are one out of 13 universities and all your other peer institutions are moving toward meeting the standards,” Chaffin said. “Most of them meet a couple of them, they’re working toward doing the other ones, and you’re the one school that meets none of them.
“From a competitive standpoint, you’re going to be undermined,” he said. “We’re relying on that process — that there’s going to be some natural competition. It will simply make them look bad.”
Rep. Keith Frederick, R-Rolla, who sponsored the bill last year, said he plans to introduce the modified version in the upcoming legislative session. He said he’ll be working with the student group and legislative stakeholders to try to develop a consensus before the bill goes to committee.
Frederick said he agrees with the self-reporting modification.
“In general we like to take the approach of encouragement and facilitation rather than the heavy hand of government regulation,” Frederick said. “We’re all pulling in the same direction, toward help for students.”
Across the UM System, about 50 percent of all students have experienced anxiety, according to survey data the student group provided. Also, 25 percent said they had experienced major depression.
The bill passed in the Missouri House, but died in the Senate during the last session. House Bill 920 would have created a board of university administrators and counseling directors who would set standards for mental health care.
These standards would include the average wait time for first visits, how long treatment would be available for, and prevention and outreach services, Chaffin said.
The student group spent time in the House working with lawmakers and received support for the bill, Chaffin said. Their bill was added on as an amendment to an omnibus education bill, but their amendment was taken out during the Senate’s conference committee.
Chaffin said he was told by representatives who attended the conference committee that the senators didn’t have adequate time to consider the bill. This time around, he plans to spend more time working that side of the assembly, he said.
The student group plans to take the setback as an opportunity to modify the bill so it has a better chance of passing, Chaffin said.
At first, the student group had asked for state appropriations for each public university that needed to hire more counselors and other mental health staff. When it realized funding wasn’t a possibility, he said, the student group switched gears and worked up a bill.
“We quickly realized it was a non-starter to ask for that money,” Chaffin said. “If they aren’t going to give us the money, how are we going to move forward? House Bill 920 would essentially place the impetus back on universities to make (mental health) a priority with their institutions.”
The student group realized that even though they had removed funding from the bill last session, they needed to go further. In last session’s bill, a board would have been able to set penalties for schools not meeting mental health standards. Chaffin said his group worried that it could be used to determine which universities received more money from the legislature.
“This isn’t the time to withhold state funding,” Chaffin said. Rep. Donna Lichtenegger, R-Jackson, chairs the House Committee on Higher Education and serves on the student group’s task force on mental health. She supported the bill last year and is planning to work with Chaffin on it again this year.
“Mental health is just a huge problem in our whole society and we need to quit being afraid of it,” Lichtenegger said. “It happens to everyone.”
In regard to changing the regulatory part of the bill, Lichtenegger said she can see why moving toward a self-reporting solution instead of imposing penalties on schools could be more beneficial for universities.
“I’m not for causing the universities any more (financial) stress than they already have,” she said.
At the same time, she said she thinks standards for mental health care are important and wants to make sure the bill still influences universities.
“I would like to see the presidents of all universities, two-year colleges and technical schools come together (to address the issue),” Lichtenegger said. “It just needs to be spoken about. Within my committee, I plan on bringing this subject up with every single university that I speak to.”
Chaffin said that people think of student groups as demanding perfect solutions right away, but his organization “takes the long view.”
“I’ve never been someone to claim that it’s a perfect bill, but I strongly believe that it’s better than nothing,” he said. “We have to move forward even if it’s not perfect.”