LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) -- A proposal to increase access to children's mental health services throughout Nebraska won first-round legislative approval Thursday.
The measure would create a pilot program to offer behavioral and mental health screenings to children, using computer technology to connect them remotely with mental health professionals. The program, to be run by the University of Nebraska Medical Center, would include three health clinics, with at least one in an urban area and one in a rural setting.
Children who visit doctors at those clinics would be offered mental and behavioral health screenings during routine physical exams. And those deemed at risk for mental health problems would be referred to further treatment.
Sen. Amanda McGill said the bill is an extension of the promise she made to reform youth mental health services in the wake of Nebraska's safe haven law in 2008.
"Right now, there is a stigma against getting mental health care," McGill said. "Making the process part of that normal, routine checkup will help fight that stigma, while also identifying youth who need that help at an early age."
Nebraska approved the safe haven law in 2008 that was designed to protect newborns from being abandoned. It didn't include an age limit, and led to a rash of older children being left at hospitals. Lawmakers had to return to a special session to impose age restrictions.
Many of the parents who left their preteens and teenagers said at the time that they couldn't access mental health services, leaving them with no alternative.
In rural parts of the state, it's more convenient and less costly to get help through the Internet than to travel potentially hundreds of miles for a doctor's appointment.
McGill said 88 of the 93 counties in Nebraska have mental health professional shortages. Four counties outside of Omaha and Lincoln have a child psychologist. The pilot clinics would be located in cities that already have mental health professionals.
"In the case of some of these services, we can make those people in Omaha and Lincoln available to Scottsbluff in a cheap, efficient, effective way," said Sen. Bob Krist, of Omaha.
The pilot project would end two years after the law takes effect, unless lawmakers renew it. Assuming it passes, the bill would go into effect three months after the legislative session concludes.
Lawmakers voted 35-0 to advance the bill. Two more votes are required before it goes to Gov. Dave Heineman.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.