The House of Representatives put aside gun control politics Wednesday and overwhelmingly approved a scaled-back mental health reform bill. Attention now turns to a similar bill in the Senate, where gun issues have continued to stall movement.
Although some stronger and more controversial provisions originally in the bill were removed to improve its chances of passage, mental health advocates still hailed the bill's approval as a “powerful moment” and “major step forward” in mental healthcare.
"Our children will recognize this as the moment when the country finally accepted that people with severe mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder deserve appropriate care," John Snook, executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center, said in a statement.
Adovcates have pinned many hopes on this session of Congress as there has been strong bipartisan agreement that reform is needed. Disagreement over details and funding issues have pushed action perilously close to the lawmaker's annual summer break, however. After that, presidential election politics will likely stymie legislation.
The Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act was approved by a vote of 422-2. It creates the position of Assistant Secretary of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Disorders, establishes grant funding for community treatment teams and authorizes funding for the assisted outpatient treatment federal grant program through 2022.
It also directs Medicaid to pay for some short-term stays at mental health facilities, but only for visits of 15 days or less. The legislation originally covered longer stays. The bill requires HHS to pass new regulations to clarify patient privacy rules, but does not change the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act to allow caregivers to receive protected health information of individuals with serious mental illness.
The co-authors of the Senate bill urged an immediate full vote on their legislation after the House bill was passed. It was approved by a key Senate committee in March.
Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.) said in a statement that the House bill “isn't perfect, but the fact that it passed overwhelmingly is proof that there is broad, bipartisan support for fixing our broken mental health system.”