President Barack Obama on Tuesday announced a request for $500 million to expand access to mental health treatment as part of a series of executive actions aimed at curbing gun violence.
Obama outlined his plan during a speech at the White House. It includes expanded background checks with an updated system, more use of gun-safety technology and changes to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act that would allow covered entities to report certain demographic information about some people with serious mental illness to the federal agency that conducts background checks for gun ownership.
The White House did not elaborate on how the $500 million for mental health would be spent. A fact sheet states it would help improve access to care by increasing service capacity and the number of behavioral healthcare providers.
The financing request comes outside of the budget cycle and with little to no chance of Congressional approval, but mental health advocates said bringing attention to the need for funding is always important.
Access to treatment has long been a concern for mental health advocates. About 57% of adults with a mental illness received no treatment in 2012-13. Of those who actively sought treatment, one in five said they were not able to get the help they need, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
The document states that the health of children and communities and promoting mental health is a "top priority,” for the administration.
Obama mentioned that more research and science would bring understanding of the issue, but did not specifically call for more action. Obama overturned a ban on research of gun violence by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in an executive action after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting in Newtown, Conn. But attempts to fund the research have failed in Congress.
Paul Gionfriddo, president and CEO of Mental Health America, said it is hard to say without more detail how the money announced this week could help the mental health system.
He said it could provide support for mental health reform bills currently before Congress, such as the Mental Reform Act of 2015. The bill would create an assistant secretary for mental health and substance abuse disorders within HHS and provide grants to states for integration of mental and physical health services as well as early intervention for children.
The new funding, Gionfriddo said, "could actually facilitate the passage."
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), sponsor of the Mental Health Reform Act of 2015, which is scheduled for markup this month, said in a statement he strongly supports the executive actions.
His fellow Connecticut Democrat, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, agreed.
“The President's initiative also recognizes the urgent need for mental health services and funding to comprehensively address gun violence as a public health crisis,” he said. “As Congress continues its complicity through inaction, I applaud President Obama's move to save lives and protect public safety.”
The sponsor of another mental health bill being considered in Congress, however, said the executive actions are unconstitutional and don't solve the problem of mass violence.
“Legislation I've introduced, the Mental Health and Safe Communities Act, would strengthen the existing background check system without expanding it and improve treatment, preventive screening and crisis response for individuals with mental illness,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).