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Colorado Health Access Survey highlights 'historic shifts'

The survey of more than 10,000 households found, among other things, that more Coloradans struggled with mental health this year.

DENVER — The 2021 Colorado Health Access Survey released this week highlighted "historic shifts in health, access to care, and social and economic conditions."

The survey, which happens every other year, surveyed more than 10,000 Colorado households between February and June of this year. The results are weighted to reflect the demographics and distribution of the state's population, according to the Colorado Health Institute.

What makes the survey a little different this time, is that the pandemic was taken into account. 

Despite the negative impacts of the pandemic, there were a few positives found in the survey results. 

“Notably, the state’s uninsured rate did not increase, because Medicaid stepped in to cover people who lost their jobs. Statewide rates of hunger and housing insecurity did not increase. Fewer people used health care, but providers and regulators created telemedicine systems almost overnight to compensate for a substantial portion of missed care," the survey's summary read. 

However, "Structural disparities based on race and income are still holding back too many Coloradans and make people more vulnerable to crises like the pandemic. The pandemic did not create these disparities, but it exacerbated them — and in many cases, the relief efforts do not seem to have fully addressed them," the summary said. 

> Read the full survey

Credit: Taylor Schuss
Jeff Bontrager, the Director of Research and Evaluation for the Colorado Health Institute, spoke to 9NEWS about the survey Wednesday.

What the survey shows

According to the survey, nearly 1.4 million Coloradans lost income or jobs because of the pandemic. 

Despite that, 93.4% of Coloradans remained insured, in part due to enrollment in the Medicaid program, which helped make up for drops in job-based insurance.

As for food insecurity, fewer Coloradans reported going hungry in the past year, with 8.1% of Coloradans reporting "not eating as much as they thought they should sometime in the past year because they could not afford food."

That was down from 9.6% in 2019. 

"Pandemic relief programs and local anti-hunger efforts likely prevented job loss from affecting food access," the report said. 

On the other end, inequities in job loss, in part due to the pandemic, were shown. 

Nearly one in three Black or American Indian/Alaska Native Coloradans lost a job due to the pandemic, compared to just 9.6% of people who are white.

The survey also shed light on a growing issue in Colorado: mental health. 

"We found that mental health really was a second health crisis after COVID-19," Jeff Bontrager, the Director of Research and Evaluation for the Colorado Health Institute, said in an interview Wednesday.

He said they found the highest percentage of Coloradans reporting poor mental health, since they first started tracking that data. 

Nearly one in four (23.7%) Coloradans ages 5 and older said they had eight or more days of poor mental health this year. 

The survey also found young adults had it the worst. 

34.9% of people between ages 19 and 29 reported having poor mental health. 

Access to food and stable housing were tied to better mental health, the survey found.  

"So that is a really concerning finding because we know that demand for mental health services will be going up and we want to make sure that the system has the capacity to meet those needs," Bontrager said.

RELATED: Coloradans 18 and under can now receive free mental health counseling sessions

A sign of that growing demand is that most people in all age groups in the survey said they are likely to also use telemedicine. 

"We really hope that these numbers can help inform decisions that are made by not only government leaders, but also within communities about how to most appropriately respond to some of these crises, like the mental health crisis," Bontrager said. "We have a lot of data that are available at the regional level so that it can inform local efforts, whether that is hospitals or health care providers, behavioral health care providers that may be looking at, 'Okay, so what are going to be the capacity needs to really address the mental health needs of the community that they are serving.'"

Credit: Taylor Schuss
Julie Reichenberger, a therapist and counselor for Denver Metro Counseling, interviews about the survey findings Wednesday.

Perspective on mental health findings

Julie Reichenberger is a therapist and founder of Denver Metro Counseling, a private practice that got its start before the pandemic in 2019.

"This year has been an interesting one. The most interesting so far for me and my practice," Reichenberger said. “Just with the pandemic in general -- like going through a pandemic with my clients, also experiencing it myself and then supporting my team of clinicians who are going through the same thing."

She said she was surprised by how effective virtual therapy sessions proved to be, but she has noticed the increase in demand.

Since 2019, she said, their daily call count has probably quadrupled -- speaking to the demand found in the survey.

“The demands of our job – working with people struggling with mental health is – it can be taxing," she said. "So we have to take care of ourselves, and having a high case load number can lead to quicker burnout as clinicians. This year I’ve had to hire more help just to take calls, and kind of screen those out."

Despite that, the goal is to always better meet the needs of their clients, which is why they hope the data drives more attention to the need for more resources.

“My hope is that more attention will be put on mental health and also the impacts that it has on the mental health system itself, because the system is taxed and the system needs more support, and when the system is supported, then people who are reaching out can get better care and higher quality care," she said. “People are reaching out and oftentimes they’re not getting returned calls because agencies are so backed up and wait lists are so long.”

She said they're looking to hire two more counselors to help better meet demand.

RELATED: Amid national crisis, report puts Colorado at worst in the nation for adult mental health care


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