Senate limits solitary confinement, enforces charity health care

No more solitary confinement for seriously mentally ill prisoners 

A bill to keep seriously mentally ill prisoners out of solitary confinement received somber, bipartisan initial approval in the Senate today. Westminster Sen. Jessie Ulibarri’s SB 64 would prohibit putting state prisoners with “serious” or “major” metal illnesses in so-called administrative segregation — 23 hours a day alone in a cell, plus another hour alone in a confined space to exercise. The measure comes a year after the tragic murder of then chief of Corrections Tom Clements by Evan Ebel, a prisoner who had serious mental illness and was released into the public directly out of extended solitary confinement with no program to re-acclimate him to human contact.

Ulibarri said that because 97 percent of inmates return to life in the community this bill, which moves corrections to a more rehabilitative model, is all about public safety.

If the measure passes, the Department of Corrections will move seriously mentally ill prisoners into environments that, while still restricted, provide access to therapeutic treatment. Ulibarri praised the Department’s new chief, Rick Raemisch, for his support of the legislation, calling it a bold move.

However, many advocates for the discontinuation of solitary confinement say the bill doesn’t go far enough because “serious” or “major” mental illness can be bureaucratically defined down to exclude a large number of people who may not be diagnosed with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder but who do have profound mental illness.

Certain mentally ill prisoners who have been moved from “administrative segregation” into facilities that have been deemed as treatment programs are still living in the same confined conditions and still without access to the mental health care they need.

Even so, the bill was lauded on the floor as a critical first step in terms of respecting inmates’ rights, protecting public safety and honoring Clement’s legacy.

“This legislation should be called the Tom Clements Mental Health Justice Bill,” said Sen. Steven King of Grand Junction, urging his colleagues to vote for the bill.

The measure was unanimously approved today and will come up for a final vote next week.


House puts state dollars towards urging kids to bike to school


Today Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush of Steamboat Springs got initial approval from the House to send $700,000 to the  Safe Routes To School Program, which puts dollars and community education into urging more kids to walk or bike to school. The GOAL is to get increasingly inactive kids outdoors each day and to reduce traffic and pollution.

Funding from HB 1301 would be available to schools where at least half the students are on free or reduced lunch. Those schools can apply for grants either to build infrastructure such as bike paths, or to do community and school education programs about alternative, healthier ways kids can get to and from school.

“Studies show this program boosts academic readiness and encourages healthy lifestyles,” said Mitsch Bush.

Mitsch Bush also noted that her bill would automatically shut down funding if the federal government decides to re-fund the program, which it established in 2005 but effectively discontinued in 2012.

The measure got initial approval in the House today and will likely come up for a final vote next week.


Senate holds hospitals to lowest rates for uninsured

In 2012, Sen. Irene Aguilar of Denver carried legislation to require all hospitals to offer uninsured and low-income (earning below 250 percent of the poverty line) patients their lowest negotiated rates for care and to work with patients on payment plans so that they could afford treatment. Her bill also mandated that hospitals tell patients these charity care options are available.

“As a doctor, I didn’t want people making health decisions based on a fear they’d go bankrupt,” said Aguilar.

But, when the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative looked into how hospitals were implementing Aguilar’s legislation last year, it found poor compliance. Of the surveyed institutions, only three out of 12 had information about the charity care programs in their waiting rooms. Only 45 percent provided that information over the phone. And just eight percent had made the information widely available.

Aguilar also noted that she’s had at least four constituents contact her because they received bills that did not reflect their hospitals’ best negotiated rates for care. In all of these cases, the hospitals rectified the situation once they were  brought to their attention. Still, the incidents convinced Aguilar that her legislation lacked teeth.

Today the Senate approved Aguilar’s SB 50, adding some compliance monitoring, a penalty scheme and patient notification clarity to the program.

If hospitals don’t let uninsured, low-income patients know about the charity care program, or send these patients to collections instead of working with them on a payment plan, they could face fines up to $5,000 for each violation. That said, Aguilar was careful to point out that after much negotiation, this new legislation would not put a hospital’s license at risk.

SB 50 will likely come up for a final vote next week.


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