Murkowski's home state has a suicide problem— GOP bill would worsen it

Murkowski's home state has a suicide problem— GOP bill would worsen it

This summer, Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiMcConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees Week ahead: Trump expected to shrink two national monuments GOP on verge of opening Arctic refuge to drilling MORE (R-Alaska) was a hero. Bucking her party and resisting enormous pressure from Republican leadership, she stood up for Americans by voting against multiple irresponsible health plans. Now, with Republicans scrambling to push the new Graham-Cassidy bill through before their Sept. 30 deadline, Murkowski must be a hero once more.

Under the Graham-Cassidy bill, federal funding for Medicaid expansion would be eliminated and states would receive block grants to use at their discretion. Through this model, states could eliminate the provision that insurers provide “essential health benefits.”

These benefits currently include — among others — maternity care, emergency services, and behavioral health care — including treatment for mental illness and substance abuse.

Cuts to behavioral health services would be devastating for Alaskans. Alaska has the highest crude suicide rate in the country. Research shows that both mental illness and substance abuse are significant risk factors for suicide, and they often occur together. Most individuals who die by suicide experienced symptoms of mental illness prior to their death.

Many suicides can be prevented with mental health and substance abuse treatment; these services can help individuals survive temporary suicidal crises. By making it more difficult to access proper treatment and services, the Graham-Cassidy bill makes at-risk individuals even more vulnerable.

It is worth noting that Alaska’s suicide rate is about more than just mental health care. High suicide rates can also can be linked to the prevalence and availability of guns — the most lethal method of suicide.

There is a well-documented link between access to guns and suicide. A recent study found that “...suicide rates are 35 percent higher (in rural areas) than in urban settings — a disparity that can be attributed to greater use of firearms in rural settings.”

Alaska is a state with high levels of gun ownership — a fact that is unlikely to change anytime soon. By decimating mental health care in a state where guns are prevalent, the Graham-Cassidy bill would inevitably lead to an increase in Alaska's suicide rate — especially the firearm suicide rate.

As a leader of a state suffering from a suicide epidemic, Senator Murkowski has a stake in making mental health care more accessible — not less. As the Graham-Cassidy bill comes up for a vote, she has the chance to demonstrate her commitment to mental health care and suicide prevention in Alaska and across the country.

She did the right thing by voting against Republicans’ previous health care bills. She listened to the American people. She stood up for those with mental illness and substance abuse disorders. She must continue to do so.

Josh Horwitz is the Executive Director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.