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Talking About the Murphy-Johnson Bill

By Paul Gionfriddo, MHA president and CEO

It’s a whole new ballgame in Congress this year. People are talking to one another, instead of shouting at one another. And there is a sense that as a result comprehensive mental health reform legislation will finally get serious consideration.

Last week, I testified at a Congressional hearing on HR 2646 – the 2015 Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act. It’s a brand new bill from the one we saw last year that we were unable to support. It emphasizes screening, secondary and tertiary prevention, early intervention, and care integration in multiple places, fitting nicely within MHA’s Prevention-Early Intervention-Integration-Recovery (PEIR) framework.  It removes the mandate for AOT.  It elevates the lead federal mental health agency. It seeks to enhance the mental health workforce. And it keeps many good provisions from last year – especially in the area of suicide prevention – that are greatly needed.

So what led to the changes this year? I think it’s because we’ve been successful at advocating for mental health services “B4Stage4,”and because affiliates and advocates throughout MHA spoke up for a different approach this year. 

But in an extraordinary moment, the lead sponsor, Representative Tim Murphy, wrapped up the hearing by crediting us directly for the changed approach in the bill.

So where do we go from here?

Our position is this: this bill is a good starting point.

That means there’s still work to be done. We need to protect the good things in the bill, and hope Congress will fix a few things, too.

Among these are the provisions related to Protection and Advocacy services for people with mental health concerns.

This year’s proposal does not reduce funding for these needed legal services by up to 85 percent, as last year’s did.  But it limits too greatly the activities in which Protection and Advocacy organizations can engage. The good news is that the sponsors have already agreed to move their position. So we are arguing that in addition to abuse and neglect cases, these advocates must be allowed to help people with housing, employment, education, treatment, and community services and supports. And we think they still must play a role in educating policymakers and the public on best practices and policy.

Adding a provision to end the incarceration of nonviolent people with mental illness is another priority for us.

No one believes that these individuals should be “treated” in jails and prisons, and changing this could also capture the funds needed to support the new programs called for in this bill.  At $50,000 per year for 362,000+ jail inmates with mental illnesses, that would come to roughly $17.8 billion – plenty to go around.

Another area in which we think there could be a better approach is in changing the HIPAA provisions so that behavioral health and general health data are treated exactly the same way.

Because you can’t integrate healthcare when you segregate healthcare information. And you can’t treat a whole patient with half a medical record.

In the coming days and weeks, we intend to continue to make our views known, and participate in a positive way in the deliberations over this proposal – and a counterpart Murphy-Cassidy proposal that will be introduced in the Senate (that’s Senator Chris Murphy, not Representative Tim Murphy, who along with Senator Bill Cassidy is crafting a Senate bill).

Here’s what else we’re doing, that we’d encourage you to do, too.  We’re talking to members of Congress in both parties, because this is not a partisan issue. We’re talking to Rep. Tim Murphy, the lead House sponsor, to explain our positions and ask for his support. 

We’re keeping an open dialogue going with affiliates and advocates. In the coming weeks, we’ll be providing tools and talking points for effective advocacy, including ideas for blog posts, op edits, and social media posts.  And we hope you’ll also feel free to tweet encouragement and support for MHA’s views to the sponsors of the legislation.

We’re calling on everyone to do all they can to help us get the best bill possible – one that, when all is said and done, we feel comfortable saying that we support.

We know that no legislation will be perfect, or include everything we want.  But we’ve come a long way this past year, and have a long way yet to go!

Comments

PEEHIP "Teacher Retirement Health Insurance" of AL discriminates in services provided for Mental illness and Physical illness. There are no preferred providers other than those few counselors available at County Mental Health Centers. Outpatient services' deductibles for any Mental Heath treatment are 3 times than those for physical outpatient treatment. Descriptions of discriminatory Mental Health coverage are not even included in PEEHIP's handbook of services, but only appear on-line and available only to customer service representatives by inquiry. Isn't this against Federal Law ? Can you help us make State Teacher retirement Health Coverage fair ?

It is a good starting point, but understand many people need help now, and don't have time to wait while politicians, and all the red tape generated in the progress builds up. Great strides have been made in cancer treatment, and other treatments, but mental illness remains stuck in the past, or largely ignored, because it is so misunderstood by society in general. You can deal with it now, or future generations will have to deal with the mess created by ignoring the devastating impact it has on not only the person, but society in general. The cost will be much greater in dollars and cents,and I can't put a price on human suffering by ignoring it or doing nothing, youth with mental illness. left untreated stand a great chance of becoming mentally ill adults without hope for tomorrow. In my own life I have seen so little change in 40 years as far as treatment, as compared to other illnesses, and this needs to change!

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