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Senate Finance leaders outline mental health legislative timeline

Committee plans to ramp up efforts in five areas

Sen. Ron Wyden walks through the Capitol on Nov. 30, 2021.
Sen. Ron Wyden walks through the Capitol on Nov. 30, 2021. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Finance Committee leaders announced Tuesday they aim to put together a bipartisan legislative package this summer addressing mental health.

Finance Chair Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said the committee plans to ramp up legislative efforts focusing on five areas of behavioral health, with one Democrat and one Republican serving as co-chairs per topic.

“The goal is to produce a bipartisan bill this summer that brings together all that work,” Wyden said during a hearing Tuesday on youth mental health.

Wyden said the issues would include strengthening the workforce; increasing integration, coordination and access to care; ensuring parity between behavioral and physical health care; furthering the use of telehealth; and improving access to behavioral health care for children and young people.

Ranking member Michael D. Crapo, R-Idaho, applauded the opportunity for bipartisan legislation, but emphasized the final measure must be “fiscally responsible” to gain support.

“Building consensus will maximize our ability to see the work we conduct here signed into law. We must also uphold fiscal integrity, fully paying for any and all provisions we look to enact,” he said. “Likewise, we must ensure any pay-fors that we advance do not in any way compromise economic growth, undermine biomedical innovation or undercut our recovery. Across-the-board bipartisan support will prove essential.” 

Wyden also responded to questioning from Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., about the quality of psychiatric care for Medicaid patients since the federal-state program is the larger payer of mental health care. Cassidy is seeking more data and oversight of how existing money is spent to improve care.

Wyden said he told staffers that he plans to follow up on this issue.

“There’s no, no question that a big part of our work is going to be this debate,” Wyden said. “My sense is, we’ll need more revenue at some point for some of our objectives. But the first thing you ought to do is do a better job of spending what’s out there and, to do a better job of spending what’s out there, you’ve got to have good data.”

Wyden and Crapo initially announced their bipartisan effort to craft a mental health package in August, and collected proposals from committee members and subsequently from outside experts.

At the time, the committee had hoped to develop the proposal by the end of the year and to pass the legislation in 2022.

But even the updated timeline faces an increasingly packed schedule for lawmakers, who still have to come to an agreement on a fiscal 2022 spending package and multiple expiring programs like Medicaid funding for territories in an election year. Democrats are also still hoping to move forward with a pared-down version of their massive social spending and climate bill.

Testimony

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, in testimony before the committee, elaborated on several points he highlighted during a call to action last year.

Murthy issued an advisory in December about the youth mental health crisis, which has worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time, he called for “a swift and coordinated response” to expand access to mental health care including supporting the workforce, improving the collection of data and research, and addressing some of the underlying barriers that can impact the mental health of children.

“The last two years have dramatically changed young people’s experiences at home and school and in their communities,” Murthy said in his testimony. “But at the heart of our youth mental health crisis is a pervasive stigma that tells young people they should be embarrassed if they are struggling with depression, anxiety, stress or loneliness.”

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., said the top concern he hears from providers is workforce strains.

“We’ve increased demands and less workforce that is available, but there’s a chronic shortage in underserved communities because we don’t have the diversity in the mental health providers that we desperately need,” he said, adding that he wants Murthy to recommend institutions reach out to historically Black colleges and universities and other minority serving institutions to offer opportunities to traditionally underserved communities.

Murthy agreed. He said he also supports measures such as loan forgiveness and more effective recruitment of minorities into this field earlier in their education.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., also stressed a point brought up by multiple senators: the connection between social media and the mental health of youth. 

Lawmakers’ concern about child safety on social platforms has been bipartisan.

“Currently, there’s a grand national experiment that is taking place upon our kids when it comes to social media. And we need to understand more about what is happening, which kids are at risk, what impact these algorithms and the broader platforms are having on our children,” said Thune. 

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