Becker bill bringing telemedicine mental-health to schools included in budget

OLYMPIA…Washington’s middle and high school students will soon have greater access to mental-health treatment, thanks to Sen. Becker-sponsored telemedicine legislation that has been included in the 2019-21 Washington State Operating Budget.

“Encouraging telemedicine is a passion of mine and I am just so excited that the plan for a pilot project to use it as a frontline mental-health treatment tool for our students is included in the budget,” said Becker, R-Olympia. “It’s my dream that the program will take off and grow to include all districts in Washington.”

The budget proviso, based on Senate Bill 5389, provides $1 million for the two-year pilot project, which will be implemented at in one school district on each side of the Cascades.

It directs the University of Washington School of Medicine’s psychiatry department, in cooperation with Seattle Children’s Hospital, to develop a training program for all middle and high school faculty and staff so that they can identify kids who are at risk of anxiety, depression, suicide, substance abuse and violence.

“During a child’s day, many trained and caring eyes are upon them – not just those of their teachers. And all of those eyes should be trained to spot the signs that a child needs help,” said Becker.

Once a student is identified as needing intervention, the initial psychiatric visit would happen at their own school – opening up access through telemedicine to qualified care to rural students, low-income students, and students who can’t or won’t go see a doctor in person.

Districts participating in the pilot will have access to psychiatric visits with either the University of Washington department of psychiatry or Seattle Children’s Hospital. The visits would happen through telemedicine for private and confidential mental-health help in a private, safe place.

Insurance carriers, including Medicaid, will pay for the service. For those without insurance and identified by the school as “at risk,” or whose carrier won’t cover the service, grants and private funding will pay for the mental health treatments.

“A similar program has had tremendous results in Texas and I am confident that it will have the same kind of success here in Washington.”

In Texas, where schools have implemented a pilot program just like this, expanding access to the Texas Tech Health Sciences Center’s Telemedicine Wellness Intervention Triage & Referral (TWITR) Project. Students are identified by trained school staff and are screened for risk-based behaviors by licensed professional counselors over a telemedicine link. Since the project began, more than 400 students have been referred to the program, 200 of whom were screened for anxiety, depression, loneliness and isolation and for whether or not they are prone to violence or violent thoughts.

Of those, 25 students were removed from school, 44 were placed in alternative schools and 38 were admitted to a hospital. The project has also resulted in a 37 percent reduction in truancy and discipline referrals. Some students were arrested for planning school shootings. The program has making an impact.