“There's been more done for mental health in the last eight years than there has been since 1972,” said Richard Frank, a professor of health economics at Harvard University who served in a top HHS post in the Obama administration. “The new legislation will continue the momentum.”
The Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act, which passed the House 422-2 in July, would create a new HHS assistant secretary in charge of mental health and substance use disorders; authorize grants for community treatment teams and assisted outpatient treatment for noncooperative patients; and allow state Medicaid managed-care programs to pay for short-term inpatient stays.
In addition, the bill requires HHS to clarify when providers may share information. It would also step up enforcement of rules for insurers to cover mental healthcare on parity with physical health; boost support for training more mental health professionals; help providers more easily track available inpatient beds; support a wide range of programs to combat suicide and improve screening, early diagnosis and early intervention for mental illness in children; and push to reduce incarceration of nonviolent, mentally ill offenders over the next decade.
In the Senate, the Mental Health Reform Act contains some similar provisions but is not as comprehensive. Still, supporters see broad consensus between the House and Senate bills and express confidence the chambers can reach agreement if congressional leaders make this a priority. A compromise is in the works to strip out a Senate GOP provision making it easier for mental patients to regain gun-ownership rights, which had threatened to torpedo the legislation.
Still, mental healthcare providers and advocacy groups say the legislation would be just a first step toward overhauling the nation's broken behavioral health system and that much more money needs to be invested in expanding services and training more mental health professionals. The pending legislation would authorize only modest increases in grant funding.
“We won't have enough treatment support for all the people who need it,” said Heather O'Donnell, vice president for public policy at Thresholds, a large community-based agency serving seriously mentally ill people in the Chicago area.
What's really needed, she said, is a significant increase in Medicaid payment rates to providers and broader insurance coverage for mental health services.