On Tuesday, Vice President Joe Biden announced that the Obama administration will set aside $100 million to bolster mental health services. The announcement comes just four days before the one-year anniversary of the tragic mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School — perpetrated by a man with a history of mental illness — and as congressional efforts to advance federal mental health legislation remains stalled.
The $100 million will be used “to increase access to mental health services and improve mental health facilities as part of the Administration’s ongoing commitment to help individuals experiencing mental health problems,” according to a White House statement. Half of the funds will be disbursed through the Affordable Care Act so that community health clinics can ramp up their mental health care services, while the other half will be used to address a lack of available mental health treatment in rural regions.
It should be noted that Americans with mental illnesses are far more likely to harm themselves or be the victims of gun violence than perpetrators of it, despite recent high-profile shootings involving those with mental disorders. On the other hand, there is no doubt that the U.S. mental health safety net is broken, and that the new funds could improve on recent state and Obamacare-sponsored efforts to address the shortcomings.
The newly allocated $50 million for rural mental health services could be particularly useful considering that over 85 percent of areas that the federal government classifies as having a shortage of mental health professionals are in rural regions. “Only in rural America did the National Advisory Committee on Rural Health find entire counties with no practicing psychiatrists, psychologists, or social workers,” wrote researchers in a 2009 report by the Center for Rural Affairs.
New federal efforts to expand mental health funding since Sandy Hook, including the Excellence In Mental Health Act and the Mental Health In Schools Act, haven’t gone anywhere in Congress. However, the health reform law is an important step forward. Obamacare is expected to give 30 million Americans access to mental health services for the first time by requiring insurance plans sold through the health law’s statewide marketplaces to offer it as an “essential benefit.”
And in November, the administration also announced final rules for implementing the 2009 Wellstone-Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act that will force all American insurance companies to cover mental health services in the same way that they do more traditional medical care. That amounts to one of the biggest expansion of mental health services in history and is expected to give another 32 million Americans access to more robust mental health benefits.