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Sponsors of Mental Health Bills Look for Way Forward

The decision to tie mental health legislation to the Senate gun package that was pulled from the floor last month has left supporters of those provisions in limbo.

Without a firm timeline in place for returning to the gun measure, senators who have introduced mental health proposals have to decide how long they’ll wait before attempting to move their bills forward separately. And for some, the end of that waiting period is approaching.

“We think it’s a very important part, with or without a full package,” said Alaska Democratic Sen. Mark Begich, referring to legislation he has introduced on mental health first-aid training (S 153). “So we’re giving it a little breathing room, but then we’re going to move forward.”

Like gun control and school safety, mental health received renewed attention after the December elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn. President Barack Obama included mental health provisions in his plan to reduce gun violence, and lawmakers on both sides of the Capitol have honed in on the issue with bipartisan support.

Begich’s bill, for example, was one of several measures that was incorporated into mental health legislation (S 689) approved by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee last month, which won inclusion in the gun package (S 649) by a vote of 95-2.

But Senate leaders on mental health do not see the gun measure as the only path forward for their priorities, particularly now that the chamber has turned away from the package.

Begich said he’s going to start asking to move his legislation forward in some format, emphasizing the bill’s support across the political spectrum. He doesn’t think any senators would object to the measure, but he says they will need to test that over the next few weeks.

Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the top Republican on the HELP Committee, is also eager to advance the larger package that he co-sponsored with Chairman Tom Harkin. An aide said Alexander would like to see it “move forward as quickly as possible because it will help parents, teachers, communities, and individuals with mental illness find better treatment and improve awareness to ensure people get the care they need.”

“There’s no reason to wait for another piece of legislation to move it forward,” the aide added.

Harkin spokeswoman Allison Preiss said the Iowa Democrat “will continue to work with Senate leadership to advance this important proposal.”

Other senators, such as Minnesota Democrat Al Franken, may be looking for measures on the horizon that could serve as vehicles to get their provisions into law. Franken spokeswoman Alexandra F. Fetissoff said he is working with Harkin and others to include mental health provisions in a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, expected to be marked up in June.

Franken has introduced a bill (S 195) designed to increase access to mental health services in schools, concepts of which were included in the HELP measure.

But some still expect the Senate to return to the gun package at some point, as promised by Majority Leader Harry Reid, and see round two as another path forward.

Michigan Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow, who introduced legislation that was not incorporated into the HELP measure, noted that her proposal was expected to be the next amendment up when the Senate stopped debating the gun package. Co-sponsored by Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt, her bill (S 264) is designed to boost access to comprehensive community mental health services.

“We are committed to moving this forward regardless — gun debate, no debate,” Stabenow said in a recent TV interview. “But the truth of the matter is, in the context of the gun debate the one thing that everybody has said is that we need to increase community mental health services.”

If the Senate is able to pass a comprehensive background check and community mental health services, she added, “we could say at the end of the day, okay, we have done something that is meaningful and will change lives.”

Stabenow spokesman Cullen Schwarz said the bill “will be voted on as an amendment to gun safety legislation when it comes up again, and there is also broad support to pass the bill through other avenues if necessary.”

House Efforts

Across the Capitol, House lawmakers are focused on gathering information about mental health issues through letters and hearings but have not advanced legislation.

Tim Murphy, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, chaired a forum and a hearing related to mental health this year and has scheduled another hearing for Wednesday focused on the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. While the Pennsylvania Republican praised the Senate for working on mental health, he has expressed skepticism about the legislation advanced by the HELP Committee.

Rep. Grace F. Napolitano, who co-chairs the Congressional Mental Health Caucus with Murphy, has been promoting a number of events in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month.

Napolitano spokesman Jerry O’Donnell pointed to a mental health first-aid training event she co-hosted for lawmakers and staff. He also said the California Democrat has been working on collecting cosponsors for her mental health bill (HR 628), which is the House companion to Franken’s school measure.

“We’ve been working on increasing awareness of the importance of mental health legislation so when legislation moves from the Senate, we’re ready,” O’Donnell said.

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