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Why Colorado's inventive plan to create an emergency mental health care system failed

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Highland Park, Uvalde, Buffalo - after mass shootings, the questions are always, why is this tolerated in America? And what must be done to stop it? Stricter gun measures is one answer. Ten years ago, Colorado lawmakers tried to address the problem from a different angle. They directed state money into a plan to create an emergency mental health care system. Colorado Public Radio's Ben Markus reports on what happens next.

BEN MARKUS, BYLINE: Just after midnight, 10 years ago today, the dispatch lines for the Aurora, Colo., police department lit up.

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UNIDENTIFIED POLICE DISPATCHER: Three-fifteen and 314 for a shooting at Century Theaters, 14300 East Alameda Avenue. They're saying somebody is shooting in the auditorium.

MARKUS: With so many mass shootings, it's easy to forget the unique horror of that night. A large movie theater full of Batman fans at a midnight premiere of the latest movie. A failed neuroscience grad student, heavily armed and in tactical gear, opened fire, killing 12 people. It was quickly revealed that the gunman had sought psychiatric help before the shooting, and that's where lawmakers turned their focus.

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JOHN HICKENLOOPER: We really have a duty after tragedies to, you know, look at what we do and how we act, how we help each other.

MARKUS: That's Colorado's governor at the time, John Hickenlooper. The state would set up a toll-free hotline, patient-friendly walk-in clinics, mobile mental health services.

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HICKENLOOPER: We believe these policies will reduce the probability of bad things happening to good people.

MARKUS: This was radical stuff at the time, and it was the brainchild of a Colorado state staffer named Chris Habgood. When Hickenlooper asked for ideas, Habgood happened to be ready.

CHRIS HABGOOD: How about this? We've got a report handy right now that the biggest gap in our system is the crisis delivery.

MARKUS: What had been an obscure government project suddenly became a signature policy of the governor of Colorado. This was a big deal in the mental health community, and it caught the attention of a mental health care executive in Arizona named David Covington. Later, he told a Denver judge why he submitted a bid for the $40 million-plus contract to run the state's crisis program.

DAVID COVINGTON: We thought this is where the country is going. This is what people will be looking at. So we wanted to bring the A team to that.

MARKUS: Colorado's existing mental health centers also submitted a bid. It's the upstart versus the status quo. And Covington won.

COVINGTON: I was looking at houses to move here, looking at schools, beginning to craft out how we would engage employees.

MARKUS: But he soon gets distressing news. Covington is told that his bid is under investigation by state authorities. The bid was invalidated on a technicality, apparently at the behest of Colorado's politically powerful mental health providers. So Covington sues Colorado. The judge sides with him, saying in court that the state had no good reason to cancel Covington's bid.

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UNIDENTIFIED JUDGE: It just defies reason, and it does suggest a manufactured reason to cancel.

MARKUS: As a result, the state's existing mental health centers cut a confidential deal with Covington to get him to leave the state. It doesn't allow either party to comment. Former Governor Hickenlooper, now a U.S. senator, didn't respond to a request for comment. Habgood, the state staffer in charge of the reforms, left his job not long after. This should have been the pinnacle of his career, a chance to build something out of a mass shooting that might prevent another.

HABGOOD: And then all of a sudden, it comes to a crashing halt because - there's winners and losers, and the losers were going to make sure that they were not the losers.

MARKUS: A potent example of how difficult even bipartisan reforms are. Now, 10 years after the Aurora theater shooting, Colorado still has one of the worst rates of access to mental health care in the U.S.

For NPR News, I'm Ben Markus in Denver. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ben Markus