House panel advances long-delayed mental health bill

House panel advances long-delayed mental health bill
© Greg Nash

A House committee on Wednesday advanced a long-controversial mental health reform bill, 53-0, that Republicans have cast as their response to mass shootings.

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The original version of the legislation, from Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), was introduced in 2013 following the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., but it has been delayed for years because lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have opposed it. 

In recent months, Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) worked to change the bill significantly to smooth over areas of objection, particularly from Democrats. The changes led many of the more sweeping provisions to be scaled back.

“Today, this Committee takes a monumental step by advancing a bill that makes real reforms and offers evidence-based treatment for families in mental health crisis,” Murphy said. “Today we are taking a stand. We affirm that mental illness is not a crime. Mental illness is not a moral defect, it is not a choice, and it is not a joke. Mental illness is just that: an illness.” 

The bill still faces a long path to becoming law, but both parties agree there needs to be action on mental health. Murphy said he spoke to Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanRyan: Graham-Cassidy 'best, last chance' to repeal ObamaCare Ryan: Americans want to see Trump talking with Dem leaders Overnight Finance: CBO to release limited analysis of ObamaCare repeal bill | DOJ investigates Equifax stock sales | House weighs tougher rules for banks dealing with North Korea MORE (R-Wis.), who has pointed to the bill as the party’s response to gun violence, about it on Tuesday.

Murphy is hoping to get a vote in the full House before the August recess, though Upton said at the markup that the bill is likely to reach the floor in the fall. 

Democrats called it a good first step but noted that more funding is needed to truly address the problem. 

“Congress has got to be willing to put its money where its mouth is,” said Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.). 

Several of the most sweeping and controversial changes had to be rolled back in order to smooth the way for the committee vote. 

In particular, a provision to allow Medicaid to pay for more care at mental health facilities, which was projected to cost tens of billions of dollars, was scaled back to codify a new regulation covering stays only if they are less than 15 days long. 

Changes in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), meant to allow information about a mentally ill person to be shared with caregivers, were taken out, with the bill instead directing the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to issue a regulation to clarify the privacy rules. 

The bill would create a new assistant secretary role in the HHS to oversee mental health and substance abuse programs. The official is intended to be a doctor, which Murphy touts as a way to bring needed oversight to government mental health programs that he says are often ineffective in their current form. 

The bill also includes measures such as grants for innovative programs that are intended to make initiatives more effective. 

It also authorizes grants for areas such as preventing suicide and early intervention for children with mental illnesses. Funding for the range of grants will depend on the appropriations process. Murphy says he has talked to appropriators and is hopeful for funding beginning in 2018. 

The Senate also has a mental health bill, from Sens. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphySenate Dem: Graham-Cassidy is an 'intellectual and moral garbage truck fire' Dems call for action against Cassidy-Graham ObamaCare repeal Murphy fires back at Trump on filibuster MORE (D-Conn.) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.), which has generally been narrower and less controversial than the House bill. 

The House bill’s most recent changes have made it more like the Senate bill. 

The Senate bill has been facing a tight floor schedule and Democratic opposition to gun-related measures in a broader mental health bill from Sen. John CornynJohn CornynNew GOP ObamaCare repeal bill gains momentum Week ahead: Senators near deal to stabilize ObamaCare markets GOP eying 'blue slip' break to help Trump fill the courts MORE (R-Texas), which he is seeking to combine with the Murphy-Cassidy bill.

Some in the Senate have floated the idea of adding mental health provisions to the conference committee working on opioid legislation as a way to push the measures forward. 

In the House, Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-Mass.) pushed for stronger provisions on mental health parity, making insurers cover mental health as well as they cover physical health. While the provisions were not included, Upton promised a hearing on the subject in the fall. 

Democrats also countered the Republican messaging that the House bill is a response to mass shootings.

Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.) offered an amendment to lift a ban on federal research on gun violence, a longtime Democratic goal, but it failed on a party line vote of 23-29. 

More broadly, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), the committee’s top Democrat, said gun control, not just mental health reform, is needed. 

“We're not going to begin to stop the violence until this Congress finally decides to address gun safety legislation,” Pallone said. 

Meanwhile, Chris Murphy took over the Senate floor Wednesday, refusing to allow the chamber to go into other business until his colleagues did something about gun control.

“I'm prepared to stand on this floor and talk about the need for this body to come together on keeping terrorists away from getting guns ... for, frankly, as long as I can, because I know that we can come together on this issue,” said Murphy.