Janet Petersen

Legislative leaders say they’re hoping to come up with a way to finance expansion of mental health treatment for children in Iowa.

There’s no consensus, however, on whether the state might assume responsibility for financing the entire mental health system — much of which is financed with county taxes today.

Senate Democratic Leader Janet Petersen of Des Moines says the focus “most definitely” should be on implementing recommendations from a task force that examined treatment options for children.

“I cannot even begin to tell you…the number of teachers and parents who come to me and talk about the anxiety our children are experiencing all across our state,” Petersen says. “I think a lot of it has to do with social media, gun violence. We have a lot of poverty in our state.”

House Republican Leader Chris Hagenow of Urbandale says mental health care is one of the “big issues” the state and nation are wrestling with.

“As we learn more in how to do more and face more challenges, I think we all should all be eager to try and take whatever that next step is to deliver these services to kids,” Hagenow says, “wherever we can.”

Senate President Charles Schneider, a Republican from West Des Moines, says addressing inadequacies in the mental health system is an “ongoing process.”

“My wife used to be a behavioral interventionist at Stilwell Junior High and she would tell me stories all the time about things that she would see going on in the classroom and some of them were really, really sad and heartbreaking,” Schneider says. “We need to make sure we’re getting out across the state to address and intervene whenever mental health issues first start to appear so we can address them early on.”

Representative John Forbes, a Democrat from Urbandale, says Iowa’s counties will spend about $114 million this year to provide mental health services to Iowans who cannot afford to pay for the care they need.

“So I want to make sure we, as a legislature, can find a dedicated stream of money to be able to provide adequate services to people here in the state,” Forbes says.

Forbes says too often mental health problems go untreated and individuals wind up in prison, which he says is more costly than prescribing meds and providing proper counseling.

The legislators made their comments Monday during a forum sponsored by the Des Moines Partnership, a coalition of 24 central Iowa chambers of commerce.