CHICAGO, Ill. – This pandemic has taken a toll on everyone, both physically and mentally. Gov. JB Pritzker signed two bills into law Wednesday to improve access to mental health care.

Illinois is now the third state to require insurance companies to cover mental health care. It’s also the first state to move to a system where mental health professionals respond to mental health emergencies.

House Bill 2595 requires all insurers to provide coverage to treat mental, emotional, nervous, and substance use disorders. The law goes into effect on January 1, 2023. Meanwhile, the Illinois Department of Insurance must file a report to the General Assembly on how it will check for compliance by the start of next year.

Sponsors say this law can help families easily seek treatment for mental health disorders without worrying about insurance coverage.

“Increasing access to mental health treatment is vital to every Illinoisan,” said Sen. Laura Fine (D-Glenview). “Especially now, when the crisis has been made worse by the pandemic.”

Bold steps to improving mental health services

Pritzker emphasized Illinois will continue to take bold steps to improve access to mental healthcare services for residents.

“Mental health care is healthcare,” said Pritzker. “That’s a vital component of a truly equitable and compassionate health system, something that Illinois is now one step closer to building.”

The second bill signed into law Wednesday honors the life of Stephon Watts. The 15-year-old was shot and killed by police during a mental health emergency in 2012. 

Illinois first responder systems will coordinate between 9-1-1 and 9-8-8 emergency responses once the national mental health crisis line is established next summer. In addition, call center operators will coordinate with mobile units to ensure mental and behavioral specialists respond to those emergencies.

Sponsors hope to reduce arrests and unfortunate deaths of people with mental illnesses who deserve help from specialists instead of police.

“As these crises pile up, now more than ever, we need to understand that public safety for all requires a humane and compassionate approach to trauma. Public safety for all requires mental health first responders,” said Sen. Robert Peters (D-Chicago). “We cannot handcuff our way out of trauma.”

Turning grief into meaningful action

Peters wore a t-shirt honoring Stephon Watts during the bill signing press conference. The Watts family was also present to see the legislation signed into law.

Renee Watts spoke before lawmakers several times over the past year. However, the fight for change took much longer. For six years, the Watts family worked alongside lawmakers and advocacy groups like Access Living and the Collaborative for Community Wellness.

“During an emergency, people with mental and behavioral health disabilities can easily be misunderstood. We’ve seen how that can end tragically with police killings and unnecessary lockups,” said Candace Coleman, a community organizer with Access Living. “Police training as it stands simply doesn’t have the capacity to handle the crisis needs of people with disabilities.”

Coleman said Stephon Watts and others who died or experienced additional trauma needed these services.

Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago) became overwhelmed with emotion while talking about the monumental change. She thanked the Watts family for turning their anger and grief into meaningful action.

“There are a handful of local jurisdictions that have adopted a mental health first responder model which means that a 9-1-1 call in a mental health crisis will get a mental health response as opposed to a law enforcement one. But Illinois is the first state to declare that wherever you live in our state, you will get an appropriate response to your call for help,” Cassidy said.

The Community Emergency Services and Support Act, or CESSA, takes effect on January 1, 2022.