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Michael Petruzzelli

, National Council for Behavioral Health

Senate Health Committee Holds Mental Health Hearing

January 21, 2016 | Medicaid | Privacy & HIPAA | Comments
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On Wednesday, the Senate committee responsible for health care engaged providers and advocates in discussing areas of needed improvement while it works to achieve comprehensive reform. The hearing, convened before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, focused primarily on the provisions of the Mental Health Reform Act (S. 1945) – comprehensive legislation introduced by Committee members Senators Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA). While the Committee did not vote on this legislation, Chairman Lamar Alexander made clear his plans to “move promptly” on bringing forward bipartisan recommendations for the Committee’s consideration.

The witnesses for this hearing included: Brian Hepburn, National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors; Penelope Blake, Emergency Nurses Association; William Eaton, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; and Hakeen Rahim, Live Breathe. All agreed that the federal government must be doing more to support mental health treatment in this country. Topics covered during the hearing included: an expansion of the use and flexibility of electronic health records, clarification and training for providers on how they operate under Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) rules; and a detailed discussion on the payment prohibition for institutes of mental disease, known as the IMD exclusion.

“Touching HIPAA is like touching an electric wire, but maybe that’s what we’re paid to do sometimes,” said Chairman Alexander. “So as we look at our mental health legislation, we should consider that story and that circumstance. Given how we work on this committee, maybe we can work on that.”

“There are multiple reasons for the surge in mental health patients coming to hospital emergency departments,” said Penelope Blake, an emergency department nurse. “However, in my view, the principal cause is the lack of adequate treatment options and resources in the community. Mental health patients often find they have nowhere to turn for treatment, so they go to the one place – emergency departments – guaranteed to be open at all times and willing to care for every patient.”

The discussion on mental health reform legislation will continue in the Senate next week when the Senate Judiciary Committee holds a similar hearing, discussing Senator John Cornyn’s (R-TX) criminal justice and mental health reform bill – the Mental Health and Safe Communities Act (S. 2002).