Two senators pushing a mental-health reform bill said after a Senate committee hearing on the bill Thursday that they believe their legislation and its House companion bill can draw bipartisan support and pass this session.
But nearly 20 House Democrats have sent a letter (PDF)to the leadership of the House Energy & Commerce Committee that criticizes the House bill for its proposed changes to patient privacy laws and its incentives for states to implement assisted outpatient-therapy laws.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said the hearing Thursday of the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee was a step forward for the Mental Health Reform Act of 2015, which he co-authored with Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.). It is set for markup early next year.
“The train is officially out of the station and on the tracks,” Murphy said during a news conference after the hearing.
The House bill introduced by Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) is scheduled for markup next week. Sen. Murphy said he is looking forward to that House process. “A lot of the answers to (House Democrats') concerns can be found in the Senate bill,” he said.
The bills would focus on better integrating behavioral care with primary care, improving access to mental-health services for people in rural or underserved areas, and improving research and grant opportunities.
Both bills also seek to clarify privacy rules in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act to ensure that doctors understand they are able to share some diagnostic and treatment information with parents and other caregivers. Experts say legal concerns about sharing mental-health information between behavioral and primary-care providers have seriously hampered treatment coordination.
At the Senate committee hearing Thursday, Kana Enomoto, acting administrator of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, said HIPAA gives more flexibility than many doctors realize. She said clarification would be helpful but stopped short of advocating any specific change.
Sen. Murphy said the House and Senate bills have more similarities than differences. “If we move on a parallel process, we'll get to the finish line,” he said.
Another witness at the hearing, Dr. Tom Insel, outgoing director of the National Institute of Mental Health, said doctors, researchers and lawmakers should push for earlier detection of mental illness and better prevention. “There just is an unconscionable gap between what we know and what we do,” he said.