Colorado Lawmakers Still Looking for Answers on 72-Hour Mental Health Holds

November 28, 2016 Updated: November 28, 2016 at 6:14 pm

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Political and medical professionals agree that jail is the wrong place to hold a person detained solely for a mental health crisis or psychiatric emergency. That doesn’t make solving the major snags around a solution – money and the law – any easier.

Last June Gov. John Hickenlooper vetoed a bill to expand the places to hold a person for 72 hours when his or her mental health presents a danger. There are only 543 public beds for psychiatric patients spread across the state, and even when they’re available they could be a prohibitive distance away. That leaves only a jail, even though state law limits jail psychiatric holds to 24 hours.

Senate Bill 169 would have made hospital emergency rooms an option. The governor, however, called the legislation “well-intentioned” but legally problematic.

“No limit is placed for how long an emergency room may detain someone involuntarily while awaiting a free bed in a suitable treatment facility, and more importantly, no mechanism is made to afford due process to a person held involuntarily in ’emergency’ custody,” Hickenlooper’s veto letter stated. “We have due process concerns for these individuals.”

He asked a 30-member task force led by legislators to work on a solution and report back by Jan. 1. The group has been meeting twice a month since August, but with just two meetings left the major tangles that led to the veto are still knotted, Rep. Tracy Kraft-Tharp, a Democrat from Arvada, said Monday.

The biggest issue, she said, is money. Everyone involved would prefer more facilities capable of holding and treating a person in crisis, but how to pay for those beds is a big question right now.

“Spending millions and millions of dollars, we can’t do that,” said Kraft-Tharp. “Our state budget doesn’t allow us to do that. It’s a question of what are we doing to do. We’ve got two more meetings to figure that out.”