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Dr. Morgan Medlock is no stranger to a crisis. Until recently, she served as chief medical officer and director of crisis services for Washington, D.C.’s Department of Behavioral Health, for which she oversaw the agency’s only 24/7 psychiatric emergency services facility. So confronting a problem as urgent as mental health care in Colorado should be right in her wheelhouse.
Every year, Mental Health America, a bipartisan advocacy nonprofit, ranks the states based on prevalence of mental illness and access to care. In 2022, Colorado finished last for adults. Alarming statistics such as these led Governor Jared Polis to launch a task force in 2019 charged with evaluating the state’s mental health care system. A year later, the group released its report, which detailed a serpentine maze of more than 100 programs—from psychiatric care to substance abuse treatment—overseen by four agencies. Such a tangled web, the report stated, was making it difficult for patients to know how and where to get help. As such, the task force encouraged lawmakers to create a new department to sync the system, and in 2021, the Colorado General Assembly passed legislation directing the Colorado Department of Human Services (CDHS) to launch a dedicated Behavioral Health Administration (BHA) by July 2022. This past January, Polis hired Medlock to lead the new agency.
A native of Texas, Medlock boasts a resumé that includes a residency in adult psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and a stint as a clinical fellow at Harvard Medical School. Throughout her career, she’s been passionate about fixing inequity: Before joining D.C.’s behavioral health department, she served as vice chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s Council on Minority Mental Health and Health Disparities. “I have always been vocal about anti-racism work, dismantling systems of oppression, and thinking through equitable behavioral health solutions,” Medlock says. That will be important in Colorado, where Hispanic, Black, and Indigenous residents are the least likely to access care, according to the CDHS’ Office of Behavioral Health.
At press time in May, the state Legislature was still evaluating the plan for the BHA’s powers and responsibilities. But Medlock isn’t waiting to act: She’s appointed five fellows to her administration who will ensure that the BHA’s work remains equity-focused. She’s empowered a senior adviser to address a chronic lack of beds for kids who need inpatient psychiatric treatment—a problem that has forced some families to send their children to out-of-state centers. And Medlock will hire a deputy commissioner of IT to address the technical side of inequity (statistics show that Coloradans of color typically have less access to the internet than white residents do).
Nevertheless, the BHA has already been met with skepticism. CDHS’ outline for the agency, for example, creates a special status for which providers can apply. Those approved would have to treat anyone, regardless of their abilities to pay. In return, those providers would get funding first, leaving less for others. That, says Dr. Carl Clark, president of the Mental Health Center of Denver, could cause providers to compete for money, which would put community health centers such as his up against larger private organizations. “We are very concerned this disincentivizes care for the most vulnerable,” Clark says.
Considering the state of Colorado’s mental health care system, Medlock understands the lack of confidence. “We know we need to rebuild trust through meaningful action and accountability,” Medlock says. “We’re just asking for an opportunity to prove ourselves, and we know we can move things in a better direction.”