By Drew White
LSU Manship School News Service
BATON ROUGE--A bill that would let children be treated by private counselors during school hours passed without objection at a Senate Health and Welfare Committee meeting Wednesday.
The bill would prevent public schools from prohibiting outside behavioral health experts from treating students if the parents asked to use them instead of just relying on school counselors.
Behavioral health services are provided when an evaluation by a psychologist determines that a child has a psychiatric disorder and the behavior interferes with the child's ability to learn in a classroom.
"Having a school psychologist as your secondary option when you have had a primary psychologist your child has been seeing all their life, the continuity of care is not there," said former State Sen. Nick Gautreaux, D-Abbeville.
The bill was written by Rep. Vincent Pierre, D-Lafayette, and the House has passed a similar version. The bill now heads to the Senate floor.
Under the bill, outside counselors would need to pass background checks by the Louisiana State Police. The services would be performed mostly during recess or lunch time, or during classes if medically necessary.
The bill, Gautreaux explained, is meant to serve as a set of minimum requirements that school boards could adopt and add to.
Schools boards could sanction providers who fail to comply with school policies.
John Gianforte, the president and chief executive of Mental Health Solutions in Shreveport, said the bill would provide "a much broader range of services than just counseling itself."
A private practitioner could provide behavioral intervention counseling and determine through an evaluation whether a child needs special education services.
Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association, said the measure could eliminate jobs for school psychologists.
"School-level professionals are concerned that the legislation will interfere with services by injecting potentially multiple private providers on campuses where current professionals are working," he said.
Gautreaux responded that school counselors "are overtasked with a whole bunch of duties so they're not able to get to everybody." He said the bill would ease the load on existing school psychologists.
Susan East Nelson, executive director of Louisiana Partnership for Children and Families, said she had heard stories from students of parents who got in trouble with schools for checking kids out to take them to mental health providers.
"There's a good potential here for connection with the school-based health centers that can now work with these professionals on campus in a pro-bono setting or by finding additional funding," she added.
Louisiana's Children's Health Insurance Program provides health coverage for 121,000 uninsured children and pregnant women who do not qualify for traditional Medicaid services.
President Donald Trump has proposed spending cuts in health care, including a $7 billion cut to the CHIP program.
Given such funding concerns, Nelson said, "We are going to have to work for collaborative solutions, and this bill helps us do that."