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Several House Committee Members Introduce Broad Behavioral Health Bill

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Rebecca Farley

Director, Policy & Advocacy, National Council for Behavioral Health

Several House Committee Members Introduce Broad Behavioral Health Bill

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Earlier this week, members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce – which oversees many policies related to mental health and substance use – introduced legislation to improve the U.S. behavioral healthcare system.

The Strengthening Mental Health in Our Communities Act (H.R. 4574) was introduced by Ron Barber (D-AZ), Diana DeGette (D-CO), Doris Matsui (D-CA), Grace Napolitano (D-CA), and Paul Tonko (D-NY). In a letter to Congressman Barber, the National Council thanked the bill sponsors for continuing the national conversation on the pressing problems confronting people living with mental health and substance use disorders in the United States. The National Council applauded the inclusion of provisions based on the Mental Health First Aid Act (H.R. 274), writing, “Like CPR classes offered by local Red Cross chapters, Mental Health First Aid is an instructional program that teaches crisis de-escalation techniques, signs and symptoms recognition for common mental illnesses, and how to connect people in psychiatric distress with mental health services. Police and fire departments, first responders, judges, nurses, school principals and university counseling staff have found these trainings to be an indispensable tool in efforts to enhance both early intervention and public safety.”

Our letter also thanked the bill sponsors for their inclusion of the Behavioral Health IT Act, another National Council legislative priority. By allowing mental health and substance abuse treatment facilities to receive incentive payments for their use of electronic health records, the Behavioral Health IT Act will help improve care quality and the integration of behavioral and primary care services.

Additional provisions of the bill that the National Council has long supported include:

  • Coverage of marriage and family therapy and mental health counseling under Medicare Part B;
  • Authority for healthcare providers to bill Medicaid for mental health and primary care services provided to the same patient on the same day;
  • A provision strengthening the “six protected classes” language in Medicare Part D;
  • Reauthorization of the Garrett Lee Smith suicide prevention programs under SAMHSA; and
  • Reauthorization of the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act (MIOTCRA), which funds programs to support justice-involved individuals with mental health conditions.

The bill also establishes a White House Office of Mental Health Policy to develop a National Strategy for Mental Health, provides loan repayment and other supports to enhance the behavioral health workforce, allocates funding and resources to mental health research and coordination, takes action to improve mental healthcare for military service members and veterans, and requires a Government Accountability Office study on states’ enforcement efforts around the mental health and substance use parity law.

The legislation follows on the heels of another mental health reform bill introduced this year by Congressman Tim Murphy, a practicing psychologist and also a member of the influential Energy and Commerce Committee. Congressman Murphy’s bill, the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act (H.R. 3717) incorporated many of the same changes included in H.R. 4574 but took a more expansive approach, including also a number of changes to SAMHSA’s program authority, federal privacy laws, and the availability of inpatient psychiatric beds, among others. The National Council commends Congressman Murphy for moving mental health and substance abuse to the forefront of the legislative agenda, in addition to his support for important behavioral health priorities like the Excellence in Mental Health Act.

The introduction of both bills is an important step in a long process of discussion, debate, and potential future hearings or votes. The National Council has expressed our desire to work with all Members of Congress throughout the legislative process to support the needs of mental health consumers, family members, and providers.

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