Dem senator eyes changes to ‘draconian’ provision in mental health bill

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As Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) tries to revive Congress’s long-stalled mental health reform bill, he is demanding changes to one of its most controversial provisions.

For years, the biggest sticking point for the House’s Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act has been the expansion of involuntary outpatient treatment. That idea has created a sharp divide between mental health groups and has prevented the bill from advancing.

Murphy announced earlier this spring that he would be meeting with the bill’s author, Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), to create a bipartisan version of the bill in both chambers.

One of the senator’s biggest tasks is easing concerns about the involuntary patient provisions, which he said Thursday is “the subject of a lot of discussions right now.” 

{mosads}“I think in order to win substantial Democratic support, there’s gonna have to be changes in the parts of the bill relative to court ordered outpatient treatment,” Sen. Murphy said.

In a Facebook chat about mental health this week, he called any provision that would withhold funds from states without involuntary treatment laws a “big issue.”

“Rep. Murphy’s bill requires every state to have laws requiring some form of court ordered outpatient treatment and a lower bar for inpatient commitment. We are trying to find a less draconian way to go, but getting parents and primary caregivers is really important,” he said.

Though he declined to provide details in an interview, the Connecticut lawmaker said creating a state requirement for outpatient treatment would be a “nonstarter.”

This is the first time that members of the House and Senate have partnered on the bill, which Sen. Murphy said gives him hope of advancing the legislation that has been in the works since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in his state in 2012.

Rep. Murphy was tasked by House leadership to lead a mental health push immediately after the Newtown shootings, though his effort has been largely stalled for the last three years.

Sen. Murphy said he decided to team up with Rep. Murphy because he believed his bill was “the most likely legislative vehicle to become law,” and he wanted to have a comparable version in the Senate.

In past years, the House and Senate have offered separate — and very different — versions of the legislation.

But there have already been setbacks. Both Murphys said in February that they hoped to release legislation in the next month, though the legislation is still much in the works.

Sen. Murphy said the other big obstacle will be finding Republicans who are willing to spend more on certain programs — which he said Rep. Murphy’s bill does do.

Until those provisions are resolved, Sen. Murphy acknowledges he and his Republican partners on the legislation face long odds in finally getting Congress to unite around a mental health reform bill.

“We understand that the road ahead is tough. If we get a big enough list of Republicans or Democrats, I think we’ll have a shot,” he said. 

– Updated at 8:29 a.m.

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