Weekly Columns

Mental Health Care Reform

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Washington, July 6, 2016 | Tiffany Haverly (202-226-8072) | comments

Nearly 10 million Americans have a serious mental illness, but there is a shortage of nearly 100,000 psychiatric beds across the United States. Fifty years ago there were more than 500,000 inpatient psychiatric beds in this country; today there are less than 40,000. Despite the $130 billion investment the federal government makes in mental health care services, millions of Americans who have a mental illness are slipping through the cracks and not receiving the treatment they need.

Over the last three and a half years, my colleague Rep. Tim Murphy, Ph.D. (R-PA) has led a comprehensive review of the mental health care system in the United States; holding hearings, talking to experts in the field and getting feedback from the public on this public health crisis. Dr. Murphy, a psychologist, used his expertise to draft a mental health care reform bill, H.R. 2646, the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act of 2015, which I was proud to cosponsor. This legislation has broad, bipartisan support and passed the House on July 6, 2016, by a vote of 422 to 2.

The Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act is a great example of how Congress can work together to accomplish real health care reform that works for patients and their families, and I’m glad this bill was approved by the House this week. Patients with a mental illness should be able to seek the same care as patients with any other illness, and it’s unacceptable that three of the largest mental health care providers in this country are incarceration facilities. Having a mental illness is not a crime, and we must work together to ensure patients and their families have access to the critical care they need to live productive lives. I believe Dr. Murphy’s bill is a strong step in that direction.

This bill assists parents and caregivers by allowing mental health professionals to share patient treatment plans and care instructions with a designated caregiver if necessary to protect the health and safety of the patient and the public. This ensures the caregivers of patients who need assistance following their prescribed treatments can talk with medical providers without violating patient privacy laws.

H.R. 2646 also creates an Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Abuse Use Disorders to elevate the importance of mental health issues within the federal government. Currently, the government spends roughly $130 billion each year on 112 mental health programs, but there’s no real coordination across these programs. I was shocked to learn that the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration does not employ a single psychiatrist. How in the world can we expect an agency to lead the treatment of mental illness in this country when they don’t have a physician on staff that has actually treated patients with a mental illness?

Next, the bill makes a number of improvements to inpatient and outpatient treatments. Just as with any other illness, early detection is critical to patient outcomes. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, half of serious psychiatric illnesses occur before the age of 14. Assisted outpatient treatment can reduce hospitalization, homelessness, violent episodes and save money over the long-term by ensuring those with serious mental illness have access to care and are not just locked away in a prison or psychiatric ward. The bill also provides the resources for new inpatient psychiatric hospital beds to address the significant shortage.

Lastly, the bill improves mental health services under Medicaid and Medicare and authorizes research on mental illnesses associated with suicide and self-harm. The lack of mental health infrastructure in this country is a serious problem, and I am proud to support the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act. Additionally, I thank Dr. Murphy, a member of the GOP Doctors Caucus, for his leadership on this important issue. You can read more, including the full text of the legislation, here.

Feel free to contact my office if I can be of assistance to you or your family. 
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