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EV couple's hard work helping suicide bill's advance

Tribune - 3/4/2020

Mar. 3--A Gilbert couple's fight -- started three years ago in the wake of their 15-year-old son's suicide -- is paying off as a sweeping mental health bill flew unscathed through a series of legislative hearings last month.

Four Senate and House committees each voted unanimously to recommend the full legislature approve Jake's Law, which would require insurance companies to treat mental health in the same manner as physical illness, finally enforcing a 12-year-old federal law.

Another important provision would create a Suicide Mortality Review Team, aimed at identifying the root causes of each suicide as quickly as possible to prevent more deaths.

But Denise Denslow, the mother of Jacob Edward Machovsky, realizes there are still many challenges ahead before Jake's Law reaches the desk of Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, who has vowed to sign it into law.

Among those steps are budget negotiations, where the bill's $8 million price tag will be debated with many other competing priorities.

The $8 million fund's purpose is multi-dimensional.

But one goal would expand the availability of counseling and other mental health services to students in schools, addressing problems before the grim prospect of a child viewing suicide as an option for ending their pain.

School districts would have the option of contracting with a mental health provider and billing the state or providing the services and seeking reimbursement from the state.

Mental health advocates view Jake's Law as a critical next step in suicide prevention, beyond the Mitch Warnock Act, now requires training of school employees to recognize the early warning signs of suicide.

While it seems like a positive sign the House and Senate health and appropriations committees have endorsed Jake's Law, without a single dissenting vote, "it's not over. We still have to get them to vote yes," Denslow said, when the bill comes before the full Legislature.

"I tell people all the time, your stories have power. It's your stories that change hearts and minds," she said. "I think it's past time for this. We have lost our son. We can't bring our son back, but we can make sure it doesn't happen to someone else."

Three years ago, Denslow and her husband, Ben, sold their larger home near Chandler Fashion Mall, in need of a fresh start after Jacob's death in January 2016.

The couple moved to a smaller house in south Gilbert and plowed the money they made into launching the JEM Foundation in Jacob's memory. They committed themselves to a non-profit charity, not a partisan political organization -- even though politics were a necessary part of getting a bill passed.

"We had a lot of people tell us 'you will never get a parity law passed in Arizona,' " Denslow said.

But the Denslows weren't going to be discouraged easily.

After two hospitalizations in September 2015, both of them lasting five days, Jacob was discharged from an in-patient program after an insurance company ruled it was not a "medical necessity," even though mental health professionals feared he was not stabilized.

An out-patient program proved inadequate when he took his own life three months later.

Despite a lack of background in politics, the Denslows embarked on a grassroots effort. They spent three years cultivating relationships and learning what it takes to get a bill passed.

They eventually found allies willing to help them. They started with Sen. Sean Bowie and Rep. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, then built some bi-partisan support by adding influential Republicans, including Chandler state Rep. Jeff Weninger and Chandler Sen. J.D. Mesnard.

Those allies include Sen. Kate Brophy-McGee, R-Phoenix, the chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, where Jake's Law got a friendly reception and repeated at three other hearings.

Committee members also include co-chair Sen. Heather Carter, R-Phoenix, who has long supported suicide prevention and health-oriented legislation.

Legislators repeatedly praised the Denslows and other parents for telling their deeply personal stories at the legislative hearings, proving the human touch can be persuasive.

"I want you to know we know and we care," Carter said, after some tearful testimony. "We will do everything we can to make sure these services are provided in a timely manner, so your sons and daughters did not die in vain."

Christie Lee Kinchen, a Scottsdale Realtor, told various committees how her father took his life when she was a child, how she had attempted suicide, amassing massive medical bills during her treatment.

"We need your help. Jake's Law will save lives. You can be lifesavers," Kinchen said.

Brophy-McGee responded, "the reason you are here is because God has a plan for you" to help others.

Randall Bass, a physicist, testified he attempted suicide in the eighth grade, leaving a gash in his head.

But after receiving treatment, Bass said he went on to a long and productive career. He said teen suicide deprives society of the contribution victims would have made if they had lived.

The Denslows told the committees how their son wanted to be a fighter pilot and loved hockey, but they recognized signs of mental illness throughout his life.

They tried virtually everything to help him and eventually, Jake was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

"We knew about these struggles at home, but he hid them from the outside world," Denise Denslow testified.

Denslow said her son would likely be alive today if Jake's Law had been in existence.

But she praised insurance companies for engaging in constructive meetings with suicide prevention advocates long before Jake's Law was introduced, eliminating a potential source of opposition.

A representative of Blue Cross/Blue Shield was listed as a supporter of Jake's Law on the Senate's web site. Many medical organizations also were listed as supporters, including the Arizona Medical Association, the Arizona Nurses Association, Phoenix Children's Hospital and the state's three largest hospital chains, Banner, Dignity and Honor.

"People don't see all the work that goes on behind the scenes," Denslow said, praising Brophy-McGee for her work in putting together a coalition of supporters. "Ben and I have been working on this for three years."

She said she modeled Jake's Law after Timothy's Law, a similar measure in New York State. Timothy's Law was dedicated to the memory of a 12-year-old boy who took his life.

"The system failed them. The status quo is not working. We need to make changes to save our citizens. They deserve better," Denslow said.

Bowie, the early supporter of suicide prevention, said he could not be happier with the progress of Jake's Law and it has a high probability for approval.

"This is one the most important bills we will vote on this session," he said during the Senate Appropriations Committee hearing. "We have come so far on this issue and we have so far to go."

Bowie said the combination of tragic losses of life, personal testimony from the families of victims, bipartisan support and lack of opposition from the insurance industry are all factors in the bill's momentum.

"I think it's all coming together. It has bipartisan support," Bowie said. "The more young lives we lose, the more people are touched by this issue."

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(c)2020 East Valley Tribune (Mesa, Ariz.)

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