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New bills look to address Maine's mental health pandemic

LD 1758 and LD 1848 were sponsored by Rep. Colleen Madigan and introduced in the Legislature's Committee on Health and Human Services Tuesday.

AUGUSTA, Maine — As the COVID-19 pandemic seems to go on without an end date, lawmakers in Augusta are working to meet the needs of Mainers as we near the two-year anniversary of the first positive case recorded in the state.

The Legislature's Committee on Health and Human Services has been tasked with reviewing, workshopping, and passing legislation to best serve health care workers, facilities, and the general public.

One issue that officials say has required more attention during the pandemic has been mental health. Tuesday's agenda included a discussion of how to make access to mental health resources and treatment easier. 

“Telehealth has also allowed us to expand our capacity and serve more Mainers in need of behavioral health care or substance use disorder treatment," Sarah Calder, director of government affairs for MaineHealth, said in a legislative public hearing Tuesday. “We’ve seen a 20% increase in the number of clients each week compared to the prior time before the pandemic.”

Calder spoke in support of LD 1758, An Act Regarding Access to Telehealth Behavioral Health Services During Public Health Emergencies. During the first few months of the pandemic, patients were able to verbally consent to care or send a written or electronic consent form without having to physically go to an office.

This bill would look to make the act of verbally or electronically consenting to treatment statute under health emergencies. 

The bill sponsored by Rep. Colleen Madigan, D-Waterville, allows patients to continue with their appointments without interruption during the pandemic.

“This is sort of how technology can serve people in rural areas or during bad weather," she added via Zoom Tuesday.

Telehealth appointments may be popular now, but they aren't new. Lisa Harvey-McPherson, vice president of government affairs for Northern Light Health, said some patients used telehealth appointments right from their doctor's office before the pandemic.

"Since the onset of COVID, the ability to provide mental health services by telehealth is absolutely essential," she said. 

Harvey-McPherson said telehealth appointments can allow both patients and providers to easily reschedule appointments or adjust meeting times because a patient might not be traveling and is in the comfort of their own home.

Anne Sedlack testified in support of the bill representing Teladoc Health. She said more than 2,000 Maine employers use the service, which covers 138,000 Mainers. 

Madigan said the process for providers to track that consent form won't be an issue. She added they can just put on their patient chart that the individual consented verbally or with another method. 

While this bill is just asking to allow this consent agreement during health emergencies, Harvey-McPherson said it could be a first step in making the move permanent.

LD 1758 will now head to a legislative workshop to adjust language before it is voted on.

Another piece of legislation introduced by Madigan on Tuesday, LD 1848, An Act To Increase the Availability of Assertive Community Treatment Services, is an item close to the heart of the representative. 

“Because I used to work on an ACT team right in Augusta, Maine," she said.

ACT [Assertive Community Treatment] teams are made up of licensed health care workers, and this bill, Madigan said, would expand the requirements to other qualified health care workers to put more teams in the field across the state.

These teams responded to mental health or substance abuse crises at all times of the day, and allowing more licensed workers to fill the job will help address the existing workforce shortage.

Members of health care and state agencies said during the hearing that positions like registered nurses and psychiatrists saw staffing shortages for years before the pandemic, and now the issue has worsened.