House panel moving ahead with long-delayed mental health bill

Greg Nash

The House Energy and Commerce committee will mark up a major mental health reform bill next Wednesday, a significant step forward for the long-delayed legislation. 

{mosads}The Committee has been working for months to make changes to the legislation from Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) to try to smooth over controversial areas. 

The bill has been cast as the Republican response to mass shootings, and was first introduced in 2013 after the shooting in Newtown, Conn., but it has been stuck amid controversy since then. 

“Next week we’ll mark a critical milestone in the multi-year effort to begin to deliver meaningful bipartisan reforms for families in mental health crisis,” Murphy and Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said in a statement Tuesday.

“For too long, families have struggled to find care for their loved ones with mental illness, and this legislation will begin to deliver the needed reforms,” they added. “Our work continues next week, and we look forward to a big vote followed by consideration by the full House.”

Democrats on the committee long opposed the bill in the form that it was in. But Upton and Murphy have made changes they hope will address Democratic concerns, as well as those of some Republicans. 

Democrats are now signaling that they could support the new bill. 

“This draft is an improvement over the mental health care bill that was marked-up in the Health Subcommittee last year,” said a committee Democratic spokesman. 

“Overall, the bill is a good starting point as we work to improve the full spectrum of mental health care in America,’ the spokesman added. “In the coming days, Democrats will continue to work with Republicans and mental health care advocates to ensure that the final bill is as meaningful as possible.”

Democrats on the committee will meet Tuesday night before votes to discuss the new draft of the bill, according to a House Democratic aide. 

The bill has been changed significantly to address Democratic concerns. 

The previous version of the bill would have changed a health privacy law known as HIPAA to make it easier for caregivers to have information about mentally ill people. Democrats warned this would loosen privacy protections for patients. The new version of the bill leaves out these changes and instead shifts the responsibility to the Department of Health and Human Services to address problems with HIPAA.

Democrats had also worried that the bill would gut the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). The new bill leaves the agency’s administrator in place, and creates a new HHS assistant secretary on top of that. 

Democrats also disliked a funding boost for state Assisted Outpatient Treatment (AOT) laws, which allow judges to order mentally ill people to follow a treatment plan. The new bill eliminates a 2 percent funding boost to states to incentivize such laws and instead authorizes new funding that will have to be appropriated later on. 

The new bill also scales back a costly provision to allow Medicaid to pay for more care at mental health facilities, which had drawn some Republican concerns. The bill now codifies a less expansive regulation from the Obama administration on the subject.

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