A House panel Wednesday advanced a sweeping mental health reform bill sponsored by Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) who made last minute changes to appeal his colleagues across the aisle. But Democrats said their problems with the legislation weren't addressed and advocates say the bill was weakened by the amendments.
The Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act was the most discussed bill in the markup from the Energy and Commerce Committee's Health Subcommittee. The House Energy and Commerce health subcommittee Wednesday advanced it on a mostly party line vote of 18-12. A Senate mental health bill with many of the same provisions is scheduled for markup early next year.
Murphy's amendment requires doctors to be trained on permissible disclosure of patient information to avoid violations of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. Murphy also refined some changes to allow information to be shared with caregivers.
The amendment also clarifies that all states can receive community mental health block grants, regardless of whether they have laws allowing involuntary outpatient treatment. States with such laws will be eligible for extra funding.
In announcing his amendment, Murphy said his bill, which was a response to the 2012 Sandy Hook mass shooting, would save lives by helping prevent violent acts and deaths from mental illness. He added that most people who are mentally ill are not violent.
“For the sake of millions of suffering families, this has to end and the time is now,” he said.
But the bill has been fraught with drama and objection, even though it had 45 Democratic cosponsors. Many of the Democrats on the committee say Murphy has been unwilling to negotiate with Democrats.
Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) said the bill has been discussed at countless meetings with legislative staff and mental health advocates, but Republicans never actually addressed Democratic concerns.
Pallone says the bill cuts away essential funding, stigmatizes mental illness, reduces privacy protections and doesn't do enough to promote Medicaid expansion in all states.
“This legislation takes us back to outdated and biased treatment,” he said.
Pallone has some added skin in the game: He presented a substitution amendment that would use evidence-based treatment to stop crises and promote early intervention, with the hope, he says, of revamping the entire behavioral health system.
“True reform cannot occur by shifting around current resources,” he added.
Another amendment to Murphy's bill came from Rep. Gene Green (D-Texas), who called for an audit of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration as a response to Republican complaints that the agency doesn't allocate funds in the most effective manner.
Green said he did not think an audit was needed and that even with the new amendment, Murphy's bill would cut resources for SAMHSA, which should be reformed instead.
Both the Green and Pallone amendments were voted down along party lines.
Mental health advocates are not happy with the amendments.
John Snook, executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center, said any changes to the bill's original requirements for HIPAA and court-ordered outpatient treatment would cause it to lose focus on the severely mentally ill. He remains hopeful the need for reform will win out.
“Unfortunately, what we're seeing is more political theater than actual discussion of issues,” he said. “The bill has broad bipartisan support precisely because it deals with those sorts of issues. Stripping them out makes the bill a waste of time and effort.”