WASHINGTON—Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have agreed on many key aspects for mental health reform legislation and efforts to combat opioid misuse, but the remaining obstacles may prove too difficult to overcome before Congress breaks for the summer.
Funding is the main issue holding up passage of bills on mental health reform, opioid misuse programs and a biomedical innovations package. Democrats say the legislation does no good without appropriated funds, but Republicans are rejecting those efforts.
Congress has limited time before it breaks for summer in mid-July, and after that, election politics will likely be fully ramped up. The Senate will spend much of its remaining time on appropriations bills.
John Snook, executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center, said he hopes to see mental health reform get as much floor time as possible to stay front and center for lawmakers.
“I think as you approach the election season you get really focused on making sure we don't lose momentum,” he said.
The Mental Health Reform Act is headed to the Senate floor this month or next. It would create state grants that focus on improving access to evidence-based treatment and would also create a new assistant secretary position at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Companion legislation in the House is at the committee level.
Members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee struck an overwhelmingly bipartisan tone, but the bill still has no funding attached.
Snook would like to see the House add language from other bills that have been floating around. Particularly important is getting rid of an exclusion that prevents Medicaid from paying for inpatient stays at psychiatric hospitals, he said.
The language concerning the new administrative position at SAMHSA could also be strengthened to ensure a person qualified to lead the agency's mental health services is chosen, he said.
“I think we're talking about a once in a generation chance to make these changes,” he said.
The Senate passed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act last month by a vote of 94-1, but an amendment to provide emergency funding was defeated. There is an identical bill in the House that could be brought to the floor this month. The White House has said it supports many of the bills' efforts, but they need to be funded.
Last week, the Senate HELP Committee advanced the final set of nearly 20 biomedical innovation bills that complement the 21st Century Cures Act, which overwhelmingly passed the House last year. Most of the bills had sponsors from both parties and were passed with a voice vote.
But Republicans have not agreed to an increase in mandatory funding for the National Institutes of Health. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said he will bring the package to the floor, but only after a funding agreement is reached.