Children's Mental Health System Signed Into Law

May 1, 2019

Gov. Kim Reynolds has signed a law (HF690) laying the groundwork for the state’s first comprehensive mental health system for children. It initially requires the state’s mental health regions to determine how to fix gaps in existing programs, although they won’t receive extra money this year to make changes.

The law requires that a set of core services be made available across the state, ranging from assessment and medication management to crisis response and inpatient treatment. It also establishes a board to oversee the system, advise the regions and help coordinate community services.

“There’s been a lot of talk about an Iowa children’s mental health crisis throughout the years and today we’re doing something about that,” said Gov. Kim Reynolds at a bill signing ceremony held in the Capitol rotunda. “This landmark legislation will ensure that young Iowans who suffer from mental illness will be treated with dignity and respect on the journey to wellbeing for generations to come.” 

Mary Neubauer has been advocating for statewide reform since her adopted son, Sergei, died by suicide in 2017. She stood with her husband, Larry Loss, behind Reynolds at Wednesday’s signing.

Mary Neubauer (center) wipes away tears as Gov. Reynolds signs the children's mental health law. Neubauer advocated for reform after her son's suicide in 2017.
Credit Grant Gerlock / IPR

“Everything that his life will have accomplished, even though it was only 18 years long, is a beautiful thing,” Neubauer said after the signing. “It’s hard but it’s beautiful to see this.”

Neubauer said she will continue her advocacy. Now that the structure of a children’s mental health system has been established, her next goal is to push for more mental health funding. The new law does not provide additional funding to the mental health regions for new programs.

“If there’s not funding to pay for this and to keep these services going, then why did we bother to do all of this?” Neubauer said. “So the next crucial thing that I see is the funding for the process and for the system.”

Reynolds said her goal is to come up with a plan for long-term mental health funding before the next legislative session.

“My commitment over the interim is to really take a look at how we make sure we have sustainable and long-term funding for mental health services,” Reynolds said. “We did some things this year that buy us a little time, so that will be one of the priorities that I’ll come back with next year is a plan for how we can do that going forward.”

According to a legislative fiscal analysis, implementing the new system will cost $3.7 million in 2020 and $6.4 million in 2021. Most of the funding will come from the mental health regions themselves, which raise revenue through property taxes but are limited by a levy cap. Democrats lobbied to raise that levy cap, but it did not remain in the final bill.

“As we look forward into next year, we’re going to really concentrate on fighting for kids and we’re going to try to get those appropriations in where they need to be,” said Sen. Liz Mathis, D-Hiawatha.

The children’s system will be available for Iowans under 18 years-old and living with families earning less than 500 percent of the federal poverty level. The law also states that children should be “diagnosed with a serious emotional disturbance” in order to be eligible, not including substance abuse or developmental disorders. Some providers are concerned that will create an obstacle for parents who call about children not yet diagnosed with a behavioral health condition.

The mental health regions are required to submit their plans for the system by April 2020.