By Elise Viebeck - 05/02/14 12:11 PM EDT
House Democrats are preparing to introduce their own comprehensive mental health bill amid fiery debate over Republican legislation responding to the 2012 mass shooting in Newtown, Conn.
The Democratic bill would gut language in a GOP bill that makes it easier to put seriously mentally ill people into involuntary outpatient treatment, along with other changes. [READ A DRAFT OF THE BILL]
Rep. Ron Barber (D-Ariz.) is expected to be the measure's lead sponsor. Barber was a congressional aide when he was wounded in the 2011 Tucson shooting that almost killed his boss at the time, then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.).
“We must increase access to community mental health services and ask more from our federal programs to make sure individuals and families impacted by mental illness get the help they need. That is why I am working with my House colleagues and the mental health community to introduce this important bill next week,” Barber said in statement.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Energy and Commerce Committee Ranking Member Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) were deeply involved in crafting the bill, sources said.
Lawmakers expect to release it on Wednesday.
The legislation will set off another round of debate in Congress over how best to reform the mental health system.
Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) is behind House Republicans' legislative response to the Newtown shooting, which is currently stalled in the Energy and Commerce Committee.
The bill is wide-ranging and controversial, with provisions alternatively embraced and opposed by mental health groups.
Aside from its different approach to involuntary treatment, the Democratic bill, which was circulated to groups on Friday, would also maintain funding for programs Murphy sees as harmful.
Members represented in Friday's meeting with the Mental Health Liaison Group included Reps. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.), Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) and Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.).
DeGette said she expects negotiations to continue over Murphy's bill notwithstanding the introduction of an alternative measure, according to an advocate who attended.
But some observers speculated that the bill is a leadership-driven effort to prevent Murphy's approach from gaining ground.
“I think Pelosi and Waxman hope this legislation will blow up any kind of continuing dialogue with Murphy,” said a lobbyist involved in the negotiations.
“But some of the [Democratic] offices believe that, rather than killing the bill, it will light a fire under Murphy to initiate more negotiations.”
Murphy's chief of staff released a statement that accused Barber of teaming up with Pelosi and Waxman to produce a bill that would preserve the status quo.
"The Democrat bill will do nothing to prevent the next Jared Loughner or James Holmes because it does nothing to help those with serious mental illness and continues funding the SAMHSA constituency of legal advocates and anti-psychiatry activists who use taxpayer dollars to force patients out of treatment," Murphy chief of staff Susan Mosychuk said.
"Dr. Murphy is advancing real medical solutions; the Democrats are offering a placebo," she concluded.
A spokesman for Pelosi fired back.
“We strongly support the efforts of our leading Members to enact a comprehensive mental health bill that actually has the support of the mental health community,” said Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill.
Loughner was the shooter in the attack that wounded Barber. Holmes is accused of gunning down a dozen people at a Denver-area cinema in 2012.
Two other Democrats involved in the new bill did not respond to requests for comment.
The differences between the two bills arise from a philosophical dispute over how best to help people with mental illness.
Murphy and his allies believe the current system must be overhauled in order to address the most severe cases, when people do not understand their disorders and will not accept help.
Critics of his bill argue that involuntary treatment is inherently coercive and that loosening the rules will drive patients away from care.
One program, Protection and Advocacy for Individuals with Mental Illness (PAIMI), is particularly divisive.
Supporters see the agencies as essential to protecting people with mental illnesses from abuse and preserving their civil rights.
Critics point to instances in which the PAIMI program led seriously ill patients to refuse treatment. At least one reportedly ended in fatal violence.
The Democratic bill contains a variety of provisions designed to improve services, programs and research related to mental health.
The measure echoes some of Murphy's concerns, such as boosting community-based mental health training.
But supporters of the GOP legislation were immediately skeptical on Friday.
"This is a mental health, not a mental illness bill," said DJ Jaffe, executive director for the New York-based Mental Illness Policy Organization.
The group supports courts' ability to order treatment for the mentally ill under certain criteria.
“It has more candy for the mental health industry than Murphy's bill and stripped out all the programs that help those with the most serious mental illnesses,” Jaffe said.
The Democratic measure is almost guaranteed to go nowhere in the Republican-controlled House.
It could, however, become a source of alternative language if the Murphy bill undergoes changes after discussions with outside groups.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and both sides are hoping to take advantage of the timing to push their bills.
This story was last updated at 3:42 p.m.