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2019 Session: Bill to improve mental health services for Deaf community advances


LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – It may be difficult for many Arkansans to communicate their feelings when it comes to mental health.

Advocates say it’s even harder for those who are deaf or hard of hearing.

“The state is not meeting the needs of the deaf community,” said Kerry Ingram, a clinical therapist and school-based supervisor.

Ingram runs the state’s only specialized mental health program for the deaf community at the Arkansas School for the Deaf in Little Rock. Of the more than 60,000 deaf Arkansans, Ingram said less than 5,000 rely on these services. Legislation would try to make sure they meet these patients’ needs by establishing standards of care.

“It’s not a huge impact on our state to do something like this but if we don’t, we’re facing a lawsuit,” Ingram said.

More than a dozen states have been sued and lost, or threatened with a lawsuit for failing to provide adequate mental health services to the deaf community, like knowledgeable interpreters during counseling sessions.

“Best case scenario, if everyone actually paid for the interpreter, without training, the clinician doesn’t understand their culture, the language and may say or do things in the session and actually replicate trauma that the client is there to fix and work on,” Ingram said.

Ingram wrote House Bill 1471 based on other states’ settlements and agreements. It would require the Arkansas Department of Human Services (DHS) to hire a deaf services coordinator to oversee mental health professionals and their services across the state.

Kelley Linck, the chief legislative and intergovernmental affairs officer for DHS, told lawmakers during the House Public Health Committee meeting Thursday that the coordinator position “is the one part of this bill that DHS does not like.”

Under the bill, the agency would also establish a certification process for these mental health providers. They could not deny access to services due to a client “having residual hearing ability or previous experience with another communication method.”

“We want Arkansas to be on the forefront of doing the right thing and not wait until we are sued,” said St. Rep. Charlene Fite, R-Van Buren, who is sponsoring the bill. “We don’t want to be penny wise and pound foolish. This will actually save the state money. It is long overdue, and Arkansas needs to get this right.” 

Ingram used an example from his program to explain the cost savings to the state. In the last three years, he said his office significantly decreased the amount of acute-care referrals, which saved the state about a million dollars. Ingram argues if this action alone could fund the deaf services coordinator for the next 10 to 15 years, she or he could find even more ways to save money across the state.

“Common sense says when you provide effective services, you’re saving money,” he said.

Fite estimated the coordinator would make between $70,000 and $100,000 depending on education and experience. She and Ingram said they also tried to add some cost-saving measures to the bill, like prioritizing telemedicine. 

The legislation cleared its first hurdle Thursday, after failing the first time it ran in committee. If it makes it to the governor’s desk, Arkansas would be the first state in the country to pass a bill like this.

In the end, Ingram hopes it makes Arkansans more mindful. He noted lawmakers decided the measure’s fate on a voice vote.

“So the deaf community in the room had no clue what the vote was or who voted for what,” he said.