Mental health reform is (finally) poised to pass in Congress

U.S. Capitol dome restoration formally finished November 15, 2016. (Photo: Alex Schuman)

WASHINGTON (MEDIA GENERAL) — A bipartisan team of U.S. senators and representatives have been working tirelessly to pass a robust mental health reform package for several years.

It never quite made it to the top of the agenda.

But this week, just before members head home for Christmas break, their legislative baby is scheduled to get a final vote.

“Bipartisanship is alive and well when it comes to helping people in need — people who have been abused by a broken mental health system for too long,” declared Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a core architect in the upper chamber.

The House of Representatives already passed the bill, largely based on the work of Republican Congressman and trained clinical psychologist Dr. Tim Murphy (R-Penn.), but now the Senate must pass an identical version.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) is the Senate Health Committee chairman and slipped Murphy’s bill into his 21st Century Cures Act, giving it a strong chance of passing – whereas as a standalone, the bill likely would have stalled.

For the 44 million adults in America dealing with mental illness, 50 percent of whom did not receive treatment last year, this program could be life changing.

Crucial elements

The 21st Century Cures Act affects a range of issues beyond mental health reform, including opioid abuse and the cancer moonshot program.

When it comes to mental health, a fact sheet released by Sen. Murphy lays out the following items that will be covered:

  • Fund grant program to detect and treat mental illness in children
  • Create U.S. Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Abuse (HHS)
  • Hire Chief Medical Officer to oversee evidence-based treatment options
  • Innovation grants to identify, test and implement effective models of care
  • Enforce laws calling for parity between mental and physical health treatments

The cost of the bill totals in the billions, but advocates argue that better care for patients will eliminate expensive emergency treatments that often end up costing taxpayers billions.

Families react

Mark Barden’s son Daniel died in the Sandy Hook school massacre in December 2012 when a mentally deranged 20-year-old killed 20 first-graders and six teachers.

Barden stood quietly to the side during Monday’s meeting, silently lending his support to the overhaul.

“What happened in Sandy Hook, if that individual would have been identified and gotten to the help he needed, this wouldn’t have happened,” Barden solemnly added afterward.

The Connecticut father now spends his time as a mental health advocate and pointed out that those affected need treatment instead of stigmatization, noting that the majority of those battling mental illness never turn to violence.

“The mental health portion of this bill is a substantial step in the right direction to reforming mental health in this country.” Barden said. “And I’m doing this to honor my little Daniel, and to save other families from this pain.”

Long legislative process

It’s been a long and winding process to get here.

A range of competing mental health bills, containing a variety of proposals, made their way through Senate and House subcommittees, full committees and test votes on the floor.

The initiatives came from offices all over Capitol Hill, including: Sens. Murphy, Bill Cassidy (R-La.), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), John Cornyn (R-Texas), and Rep. Tim Murphy.

Ultimately, the proposals were boiled down and inserted into the 21st Century Cures Act.

“Compromise” isn’t usually a popular word in politics these days, but this legislation only made it to the finish line through give-and-take on both sides.

For instance, the Murphy-Cassidy proposal called for an easing of HIPAA guidelines to allow additional sharing of information between mental and medical caregivers and the parents of vulnerable mentally ill patients who may not adhere to treatment recommendations. The new version simply clarifies existing regulations.

Additionally, the Cures Act “would cut $3.5 billion — about 30 percent — from the Prevention and Public Health Fund established under Obamacare to promote prevention of Alzheimer’s disease, hospital acquired infections, chronic illnesses and other ailments,” reports NPR.

Sen. Cornyn would like to see further changes to the criminal justice system, saying it ends up “warehousing” patients desperately in need of treatment and often worsens their conditions.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), a former psychiatric nurse, admitted that it’s an imperfect bill, but reassured those gather that it will greatly benefit the lives of patients, families and caregivers.

Senators are confident that the Cures Act will pass in short order with bipartisan support.

If, for some reason, the Senate doesn’t vote prior to January 20, 2017, the clock resets and the entire legislative process starts again.

Follow Chance Seales on Twitter: @chanceseales

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