COLUMBIA, SC (WSPA) — Leaders said reviewing the mental health services program available at South Carolina’s public schools.

Gov. Henry McMaster issued an executive order in January requesting the review. On Tuesday, the Joint Citizens and Legislative Committee on Children heard from the South Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

Director Robert Kerr said his agency is in the early stages of a review of the state’s behavioral health funding and delivery system for students. Officials were asked to assess the availability of services to children in public schools, to identify any accessbarriers to determine the most effective way to use existing funds and to decide if more money is needed. The program is run through the state Department of Mental Health.

McMaster mentioned the review in his state of the state speech.

“We must do better,” he said. “The cost of doing nothing is unimaginable. And the damage, well, the damage will likely be immeasurable.”

Kerr told lawmakers on Tuesday that there are 360 therapists working at South Carolina public schools. He also said about 80% of students using these services qualify for Medicaid.

“I think our goal is to try to create an opportunity for school districts to have a slate of providers to choose from and open the provider capacity up,” Kerr said.

Demand for these services has never been higher. Data shows that since the pandemic began suicide rate among children and teens has increased across the country. The American Academy of Pediatrics and other groups declared a national state of emergency in children’s mental health.

Kerr said leaders are looking at what options should be on the table to get more therapists in schools.

“We think there is an opportunity to leverage telehealth and telemedicine in this area,” he said. “We don’t think it will solve all our problems, but it will alleviate the significant burden at this moment.”

According to Kerr, leaders are also looking at the charging practices. Some families in South Carolina are paying after their children see a therapist at school.

“The balanced billing is obviously a deterrent,’ Kerr told lawmakers. “It’s at the will of the General Assembly and governor. Is this something we are going to fund for the state or put it on individuals and private insurance to pay?”

The committee will be holding another meeting and will look at drafting legislation to introduce later this year.