On Wednesday, March 16 the Senate HELP Committee passed out of committee S 2680, the Mental Health Reform Act of 2016.  The bill taken up was based on a staff discussion draft.

In prepared remarks Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Ranking Member Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), sponsors highlighted the overall changes in the authorization legislation, Alexander said “One in five adults in this country suffers from a mental illness, and nearly 60 percent aren’t receiving the treatment they need.  This bill will help address this crisis by ensuring our federal programs and policies incorporate proven, scientific approaches to improve care for patients. States like Tennessee and local governments are on the forefront in treating mental illness and substance use disorder, and this legislation will support their efforts so people can get the help they need.”

Murray added that, “The policies laid out today are strong steps in the right direction, toward solving the many problems that patients and families face when they seek care for mental illness and substance use disorder. The …

[bill] would help expand access to quality care, and make sure that patients receive coordinated mental and physical health care. Moving forward, we must build on the bipartisan foundation laid out in this agreement, and continue making progress to improve treatment for mental health, and substance use disorders across our country.”

The sponsors said that the draft bill reflected feedback from states, patient groups, advocacy groups, state associations, hospitals, insurers, providers, and doctor’s groups who reviewed a discussion draft of the legislation released earlier this month. The legislation includes changes to federal departmental leadership, coordination and reforms, increased emphasis on the use of innovation and evidence-based programs, reforms to the community mental health block grants, and strengthening mental health and substance use services for children and youth, and improving patient care access to care.

As was the case with the previous week’s debate regarding substance abuse issues and treatment there was a great deal of discussion regarding the need to provide the critical funding from the services and reforms outlined in the bill.  It is unclear when the Senate will take up the bill since a floor debate on mental health issues will take several days or weeks.

More generally the Committee claims that the bill would:

  • improve coordination between federal agencies and departments that provide services for individuals with mental illness, and will improve accountability and evaluations of mental health programs.
  • Helps to ensure that federal dollars support states in providing quality mental health care for individuals suffering from mental illness by updating the block grant for states.
  • Require the federal agencies and programs involved in mental health policy incorporate the most up-to-date approaches for treating mental illness, and requires that agency leadership include mental health professionals who have practical experience.
  • Increases access to care for individuals including veterans, homeless individuals, women, and children. It also helps improve the training for those who care for those with mental illnesses, and promotes better enforcement of existing mental health parity laws.

Watch the hearing here.

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