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Lawmakers to ramp up mental health push

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Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) on Tuesday outlined plans to introduce a pair of mental health reform bills next month, amid a push that began in the wake of the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn.

{mosads}Rep. Murphy, a longtime champion of mental health reform, plans to reintroduce a version of a bill he pushed in the last Congress, he said at a mental health event hosted by The Hill on Tuesday. Sen. Murphy said he would introduce a bill that has “some differences” but is “substantially similar” in the Senate around the same time. 

While gun legislation, such as expanding background checks, was brought up after the Newtown shooting, it has little chance of passing. But there is hope for mental health legislation. 

“I get that we are not likely going to pass a background checks bill in the next two years, but we can pass a comprehensive mental health reform bill,” Sen. Murphy said. 

“I believe it can and must move this year,” Rep. Murphy said of his bill. Without reform, he said, “we’re going to see another tragedy come up, on a large scale or a small scale, and we don’t want to see that.”

Murphy introduced legislation in 2013 called the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act, that he is now looking to revive. 

It would seek to streamline a tangle of federal programs for people with mental illness and create an assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services to oversee the programs.

It would also increase the number of psychiatric beds available and relax health privacy laws to give caregivers more information. 

One of the more controversial provisions backs involuntary treatment for some mentally ill people.

Tim Murphy’s bill had won support from Republican leadership in Congress, who painted it as the GOP’s solution to the nation’s intensifying mental health crisis. But the bill’s path forward came into question last session, after the House Energy and Commerce Committee decided to break it into pieces to improve its chances of passage.

“Last year there were some political hurdles that got in the way,” Rep. Murphy acknowledged Tuesday, but he said that Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) is ready to move forward on the bill, and leadership is supportive as well. He said he has also had several conversations with Vice President Biden.

Sen. Murphy acknowledged that it is a disappointment to him and many Democrats that gun control legislation has little chance of passage. 

“I still, to this day, can’t understand why we can’t change this nation’s gun laws,” he said.

But he noted that mental health reform is important in its own right, in addition to its role in seeking to prevent mass shootings. Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), a medical doctor, is working with him, which he said adds an important bipartisan element.

He said the families of Newtown victims are some of the most effective advocates.

“I don’t know that any of them are saying we should wait to fix our mental health system until we can get a background checks bill,” he said.

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