DENVER — Medical groups and doctors are split over legislation that would allow licensed psychologists to prescribe certain mental health medications to their patients in Colorado.
Despite the divide among doctors, the bill, HB 1071, overwhelmingly passed the Colorado House of Representatives last week with bipartisan support.
Supporters say it will address a huge problem in Colorado. Opponents worry about "unintended consequences."
About 2.8 million people, nearly half the state’s population, live in an area with a shortage of psychiatrists, according to the U.S. Bureau of Health Workforce, which is part of the Health Resources and Services Administration at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Colorado also faces a severe shortage when it comes to psychiatrists who treat children.
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry says there are just 16 child and adolescent psychiatrists per 100,000 residents in Colorado.
Many counties in rural parts of the state have no child and adolescent psychiatrists.
Many Coloradans turn to psychologists for mental health care.
But if a psychologist believes a patient could benefit from medication, they must refer them to a psychiatrist for an evaluation, which means they must get in line.
"It takes you months, for some people months and months to get in to see a psychiatrist,” said State Rep. Judy Amabile, D-Boulder.
Amabile says she knows personally what that wait is like.
“My own family has really struggled with this,” said Amabile. “I have a son who has a significant and persistent mental illness.”
To cut down on the wait time, Amabile along with a bipartisan group of her colleagues, introduced a bill to allow psychologists to prescribe mental health medications directly to their patients.
The bill requires psychologists to undergo additional training and education before they could do so.
“The bill will allow a Ph.D. psychologist who also gets a master's in psychopharmacology and does some additional years of training under a prescriber… to prescribe medications to their patients,” Amabile said. “It will ensure that more people get access to care in a way that they can afford it and in a way that is effective for them."
The Colorado Psychological Association is among the groups that support the bill.
If Colorado passes the legislation, it would be one of a handful of states that allow psychologists to prescribe medication.
New Mexico has allowed psychologists to prescribe medication for the last two decades.
Dr. Donald Fineberg, a psychiatrist practicing in Placitas, New Mexico, says it has been a “positive” experience.
“It has been a great boon for the people of New Mexico,” Fineberg wrote in a letter to Colorado lawmakers endorsing HB 1071. “They have enjoyed increased access to quality psychological care, with the use of psychotropic medication when indicated.”
Fineberg said, “fears of undertrained psychologists hurting patients have been shown to be completely without foundation.”
But in Colorado, several medical groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Colorado Psychiatric Society and the Colorado Medical Society fiercely oppose the legislation, along with several doctors.
One of them is Dr. Adam Burstein, a psychiatrist in Denver.
Burstein wrote a letter to lawmakers, outlining his concerns with the legislation.
“I have a personal frustration, if you will, when politicians make changes to medical policy,” said Burstein.
He says even though the bill requires psychologists to undergo additional training, they still won’t have the in-depth knowledge needed to prescribe medication.
“It’s not that people can’t learn what we do, it just takes a lot of time, training, and supervision,” Burstein said. “Having an accelerated track for psychologists to prescribe is akin to allowing physical therapists a fast track to prescribing pain medication and conducting surgery.”
Burstein told Denver7 he also worries the bill would lead to an overprescribing of medication.
“The more I do my job, I do not think that medication is the answer. Putting more and more kids and adults on medication is not the answer,” said Burstein.
Despite concerns from several doctors, the bill has received overwhelming bipartisan support in the Colorado House of Representatives, which passed it on the third reading by a vote of 56 to 6.
Three House members did not cast a vote.
State Rep. Mary Bradfield, a Republican, co-sponsored the bill with Amabile in the House.
The bill will likely receive similar support in the Colorado Senate.
Senate President Steve Fenberg is listed as one of the prime sponsors of the legislation, along with State Sen. Cleave Simpson, a Republican.