The Senate Just Took A Big Step Toward Expanding Mental Health Care While No One Was Looking

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Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), center, and Roy Blunt (R-MO), right, introduce bipartisan mental health legislation in February

Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), center, and Roy Blunt (R-MO), right, introduce bipartisan mental health legislation in February

CREDIT: National Council For Behavioral Health

Congress took a major step toward passing legislation that funds community resources for mental health care on Thursday, when the Senate Finance Committee adopted the Excellence In Mental Health Act during its markup of the so-called “doc fix” bill.

Since 1997, lawmakers have been forced to delay implementation of the “Sustainable Growth Rate” formula every single year — a tactic that has come to be called the Medicare “doc fix” — to prevent massive cuts in reimbursements to doctors who treat Medicare patients. Elected officials expressed optimism that the doc fix legislation marked up on Thursday may eventually lead to a permanent solution, rather than another temporary stalling measure. Without the doc fix, Medicare doctors could see their pay get cut by 20 percent.

But media reports have overlooked another unlikely area of progress from Thursday’s markup: the adoption of Sens. Debbie Stabenow’s (D-MI) and Roy Blunt’s (R-MO) stalled Excellence In Mental Health Act as an amendment to the doc fix legislation.

Stabenow and Blunt introduced their bill in February, when the horrific mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School — perpetrated by a man suffering from mental illness — was still dominating the national conversation. The bipartisan bill has been in congressional limbo ever since, with a series of budget crises and spars over the Affordable Care Act sucking up congressional resources.

Thursday’s development represents the biggest step that Congress has taken to expand mental health care in nearly a full year since Sandy Hook. If passed, the bill will “establish criteria for certified community behavioral health clinics to ensure the providers cover a broad range of mental health services — including 24-hour crisis care, increased integration of physical, mental, and substance abuse treatment so they are treated simultaneously rather than separately, and expanded support for families of people living with mental health issues,” according to a press release from Stabenow’s office. The version passed in committee today would set up federally-funded pilot programs in 10 states to expand access to mental health care along those lines.

“Our bipartisan bill expands access to care and improves quality of care so people living with mental illness can get the treatment they need,” said Stabenow in a statement. “Instead of merely talking about this issue in the wake of tragedies, it is time for Congress to finally take action.”

Other bipartisan federal legislation such as the Mental Health First Aid Act and Mental Health In Schools Act are still stuck in Congress. On Thursday, Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA) — a former psychologist — introduced his own legislation aiming to boost outpatient mental health care, make it easier for Americans in rural regions to get treatment, and create behavioral health awareness programs for teens to reduce the stigma of mental illness among young people.