Senators unveil bipartisan mental health bill

Sens. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyAvalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign Senate passes tax overhaul, securing major GOP victory Dem senator compares GOP tax bill to unicorns, Tupac conspiracy theories MORE (D-Conn.) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.) introduced a bipartisan mental health reform bill on Tuesday.  

The measure is partly intended as a response to mass gun shootings in each senator’s state that were carried out by people with mental health issues.

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“The families in Sandy Hook, they want changes to our nation’s gun laws, but they don’t want our disagreements over those issues to stop us from making bipartisan progress on other issues that are important like our broken mental health system,” Murphy said, referring to the Connecticut town where 26 people, including 20 school children, were killed in December 2012. 

The pair say their measure is similar to a bill championed by Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) in the House.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing on his bill in June, and it is expected to be the starting point for bipartisan negotiations in the fall. 

In the Senate, Cassidy said that he had a commitment from the Senate health committee to have a hearing on the bill in the fall.  

The pair of senators say the need for their legislation is that one in five adults, or 44 million people, experience a mental illness per year.

Despite those statistics, the senators say the number of available psychiatric beds declined 14 percent in recent years, and families are often prevented by privacy laws from accessing crucial information to help care for family members with mental illness. 

The bill would change the privacy law, known as HIPAA, and encourage education around existing requirements, with the aim of allowing family members to have more information about their mentally ill loved ones and better care for them. 

The senators’ legislation would create a new assistant secretary to oversee mental health. It also gives grants to improve integration of physical and mental health services and for early intervention in children who demonstrate risk factors for mental illness. It reforms Medicare and Medicaid to remove rules preventing patients from using physical and mental health services at the same place on the same day.

A more controversial provision involves Assisted Outpatient Treatment (AOT), where a judge can order someone with mental illness to follow a treatment plan. 

The House bill incentivizes AOT through block grants, though the proposal has been scaled back from the original proposal. The Senate bill mostly steers clear of the issue, other than a pilot program. 

Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, objected to the HIPAA changes and AOT provisions in the House bill, and those issues are sure to come up during negotiations in the fall. 

While the Senate measure is intended as a companion to the House bill, Cassidy said right now he is still focused on getting the bill out of committee. 

“We’ve got our committee hearing in the fall, as we’ve been told, if we can advance it then, then we’ll go to the next step,” Cassidy said.