House Democrats push mental health alternative

House Democrats on Tuesday unveiled an alternative to a sweeping mental health overhaul from Republicans, further complicating a reform push that was already at risk of failing.

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The wide-ranging bill from Rep. Ron Barber (D-Ariz.) abandons a series of aggressive and controversial steps proposed by Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) that are intended to empower family members coping with extreme cases of mental illness. [READ THE BILL HERE.]

In its place, the Democratic measure proposes new federal initiatives to help prevent and treat mental illness.

The Democratic bill also contains specific measures to boost care for schoolchildren, veterans and seniors, and urges increased research on serious mental illness.

Barber, speaking at a press conference, recalled the 2011 Tucson, Ariz., shooting that killed six people and wounded him and 12 others, including his then-boss, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.).

The shooter was later diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic.

"He was never once diagnosed or treated for mental illness until he went to prison," Barber said. "Had we been able to do that, we might never have had that tragic event."

Democrats said their measure was not intended to throw sand in the gears of Murphy's bill, which GOP leaders have failed to advance in its current form.

"No negotiations [about Murphy's bill] are over," Barber said. "We can and should move forward on a bipartisan basis."

The bill that Murphy crafted was intended to be the GOP's legislative response to the 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Conn., and takes strong cues from families struggling with a loved one who will not seek treatment for their illness.

Murphy attacked the alternative measure as doing little to help the seriously mentally ill.

“The Democrat bill will do nothing to prevent the next Jared Loughner, James Holmes, or Adam Lanza because it does nothing to help those with serious mental illness," Murphy chief of staff Susan Mosychuk said in a statement.

"It denies inpatient and outpatient treatment options to those who are experiencing an acute mental health crisis. It denies families the opportunity to be part of the care team and help their loved ones with serious mental illness.

“And it denies the reality that the lead federal agency, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, has failed in its mission," Mosychuk said.

The two measures reflect a fault line in the mental health community when it comes to caring for people with serious mental illness. Both approaches have champions who feel the other side’s priorities are misguided.

The Democratic measure would create a White House Office of Mental Health Policy to ensure agencies are collaborating to help the mentally ill with care, housing, job support and other services.

The office would reauthorize the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), which provides grants for community-based mental health groups.

Murphy's bill, meanwhile, seeks to make involuntary treatment a more widely available option for people with severe or violent symptoms, and it loosens privacy rules to allow family members to communicate with the patient's healthcare providers.

The GOP measure also increases funding for psychiatric beds and defunds or revamps programs that Murphy believes discourage patients from seeking treatment.

Democrats and many mental health advocates oppose these provisions, arguing they are inherently coercive and only focus on the most extreme cases, rather than on preventing illness from escalating.

The Barber bill arrived with the immediate support of a powerful consumer group, Mental Health America, which had attacked Murphy's legislation upon its introduction on the grounds that it takes power away from patients.

Several other influential groups remained on the sidelines Tuesday, including the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). NAMI and several provider groups have been caught in the fray. 

The Democratic measure arose after months of debate on Murphy's bill.

Barber introduced his bill with the involvement of Democratic leaders, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.). He is facing a tough reelection campaign this year, with the National Republican Campaign Committee naming him a top target.