Senators Introduce Bipartisan Bill To Strengthen America’s Mental Health System

As part of a wide-ranging effort to address gun violence in the wake of December’s mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, a bipartisan group of senators has introduced the Excellence In Mental Health Act, legislation that aims to strengthen America’s mental health safety net by providing behavioral health care facilities more access to federal funding and consolidating disparate elements of the U.S. mental health safety net.

When introducing the legislation, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) explained, “[W]e must work together to spend federal dollars more wisely when treating people who are mentally ill. This bill will help address our fragmented mental health system and ensure that more patients have access to the care they need by offering current Community Mental Health Centers a chance to expand their services and obtain the Federally Qualified Community Behavioral Health Center designation.” Such a move would provide qualifying behavioral health centers parity with physical health centers by giving them access to prospective — rather than retrospective — Medicaid reimbursements. Modern Healthcare reports that the legislation would also require the federal health centers to offer more expansive services to mentally ill Americans and their families:

The new criteria established by the bill… would require such things as 24-hour crisis care, the increased integration of mental and substance abuse care with other kinds of medical care, as well as expanded support for families of mental health patients.

Mark Covall, president and CEO of the National Association of Psychiatric Health Systems, said increased standardization and integration are both worthwhile goals (though the association doesn’t take an official stand on the bill). Whether it is adding mental health services to federally qualified health centers or adding medical care to mental health centers, integration is important because that is the direction the industry is moving toward, Covall said.

In its current iteration, the Excellence In Mental Health Act represents a solid step in the right direction when it comes to bridging the illogical gap between the ways that physical and behavioral health issues are treated in America. But while the increased funding provisions are good news, the bill still does not go quite as far as the Wellstone-Domenici Mental Health Parity And Addiction Equity Act, which would require most private insurers to treat mental health coverage the same way they treat any other coverage.

It is also encouraging that the bill includes mental health resources for veterans and substance abusers. Military suicides reached a record high in January, and substance abusers — as a group — are among the most likely to suffer from a co-occurring mental illness. Alongside Sen. Al Franken’s (R-MN) recently-introduced Mental Health In Schools Act — which encourages early intervention and community resources for mentally ill American children — the new legislation suggests that the Senate is serious about plugging the gaping holes in America’s mental health safety net.

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