A key Senate committee has released a bipartisan draft of a mental-health reform bill (PDF), but advocates are disappointed that some of the changes they think are most important have been left out.
“If this were to pass as is, it would be of no benefit to (people with) severe mental illness,” said John Snook, executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center.
Advocates and lawmakers have agreed that this legislative session is a real opportunity for mental-health reform, and members of both parties have been proposing bills and talking across the aisle. No single bill has emerged as a definite vehicle, however, and time is running out.
The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions' (HELP) draft bill creates the position of chief medical officer at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and requires the agency to develop specific goals and measure program outcomes. It also strengthens state mental-health grants, including some that target the homeless, women, children and veterans.
But the bill does not mention several provisions found in other proposed legislation, such as allowing Medicaid to pay for short-term stays at residential mental-health facilities, or creating incentives for court-ordered outpatient treatment for people with severe mental illness who are not following their treatment plans.
Paul Gionfriddo, president and CEO of Mental Health America, said the bill has a good foundation but lacks important details and “has a long way to go.”
He said he would have liked to have seen a draft more similarly structured to a bill that Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.) introduced last year. They joined committee leadership in endorsing the latest draft bill, but Murphy did note in a press release that he will “keep working with both Republicans and Democrats on the HELP Committee to make it even stronger.”
“The good news is, it's just increasing progress,” Gionfriddo said. “I keep looking at it that way … there's an overwhelming majority who would like to get some major mental-health legislation done this year.”
One omission that mental-health advocates approved of was an absence of any language concerning gun ownership. They said gun violence is a key issue, but should not be intertwined with mental-health reform, and discussing them together advances the stigma that people with mental illness are more violent than others.
Snook said it won't be long until lawmakers are focused on the November election, and he doesn't think there is any time to waste in enacting mental-health reform.
“I hope there's recognition from legislators that the timing is too short for more talking and we need action,” he said.
Gionfriddo agreed that time is running out, but noted that during the 2008 lame-duck session, the law requiring health insurers to cover mental illnesses on par with other medical conditions was passed.
“That's important, because 2017 is a big unknown for us,” he said.