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Amid ‘Crisis,’ Senate Bill Seeks Boost Access to Mental Health Care

Murray, left, and Alexander, right, lead the HELP Committee. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Murray, left, and Alexander, right, lead the HELP Committee. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Senators are working to overhaul the mental health system, unveiling legislation late Monday that they plan to mark up next week.  

The Mental Health Reform Act would seek to bolster coordination between agencies that address mental health, update state funding, improve mental health practices, and increase access to mental health care.  

Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash. — the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee  — and Sens. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., and Bill Cassidy, R-La., unveiled the draft bill.  

“One in five adults in this country suffers from a mental illness, and nearly 60 percent aren’t receiving the treatment they need,” Alexander said in a statement. “This bill will help address this crisis by ensuring our federal programs and policies incorporate proven, scientific approaches to improve care for patients.”  

A Senate aide involved with the legislation told Roll Call that the discussion draft is being reviewed by other members of the HELP panel this week, as well as outside stakeholders, and the sponsors intend to introduce a bill — perhaps with modifications — in time for a March 16 markup.  

At that point, it is likely Alexander and Murray will lay down a set of non-controversial changes, with the panel debating anything more controversial.  At the same session, the committee will also consider separate legislation related to treatment and prevention of opioid addiction.  

One week out, it did not appear there were any poison pill provisions likely to come up through the HELP Committee, though the Judiciary Committee’s work on similar issues could be a different story. There, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, has introduced legislation relating to mental health and the criminal justice system, which includes a controversial provision that would set up an administrative review process for someone who is barred from obtaining a firearm due to mental illness.  

Murphy has previously said that the mental health overhaul bill and the Cornyn bill could come to the floor at the same time. But on Tuesday, the aide said it was too early to speculate how measures could be merged when they reach the floor for debate.  

Murphy and Cassidy, a former physician, have been working on legislation to overhaul the mental health system, which advocates say is in dire need of improvement. They have touted their efforts as one of the few areas of bipartisanship that could get done this year.  

The bill unveiled Wednesday includes a number of similar elements from Murphy and Cassidy’s original legislation. The bill would:

    • Codify a chief medical officer at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
    • Establish a inter-departmental committee to coordinate services relating to serious mental illnesses.
    • Ensure the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7, and that veterans are connected to a veterans’ suicide prevention specialist.

The bill would also seek to address privacy issues, ensuring that patients, families and health care providers have access to resources on privacy rules, and develop training programs for sharing health information.  

Across the Capitol, the main architect of a comprehensive mental health bill in the House expressed reservations about the Senate legislation.  

“The House bill will make a profound difference by emphasizing early treatment for serious mental illness and psychiatric intervention for families in crisis,” Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., said in a statement. “To abandon House reforms supported by a bipartisan coalition of 185 members would be tantamount to abandoning patients with seriously mental illness and those who have devoted their lives to care for them.”  

Legislation in both chambers faces a number of hurdles, from a shortened legislative calendar to a partisan political environment.  

“It looks like the issue is getting its day in the sun and hopefully once it passes the committee, it will keep moving,” the aide said, noting that the delay overhauling mental health laws has been more of an issue of prioritizing the matter in the Senate — where debate time is so limited — than real serious disagreements on policy.

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