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Michael Petruzzelli

, National Council for Mental Wellbeing

What’s Coming Down the Hill? An Update on Congress in 2016

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Over the last several months, Capitol Connector has written over 50 stories about mental health and substance use legislation in the 114th Congress. From bill introductions to committee hearings to votes, every major development has been shared with our readers. And in two weeks, when President Obama submits to Congress the final budget recommendations of his administration, mental health and addictions will again take center stage. So where do all of these bills stand? What should be expected from Congress in the run up to Election Day 2016?


Achieving Comprehensive Reform: Mental Health and Addictions

To kick off the New Year, Senators Roy Blunt (R-MO) and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) announced their plans to introduce legislation to expand the Excellence in Mental Health Act demonstration project. This would significantly expand funding to support Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics in each of the 24 planning grant states. The legislation, while not yet introduced, is already garnering support from dozens of national advocacy organizations from across the country.

In November, lawmakers on a key health subcommittee approved Representative Tim Murphy’s Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act (H.R. 2646). The bill now awaits a full committee hearing to be convened by House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI). The latest reports from the Hill indicate that a hearing and vote could be scheduled some time this spring. In the meantime, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle work to restore critical bipartisan priorities that were removed in the amended version.

The Senate’s version of comprehensive mental health reform legislation – the Mental Health Reform Act (S. 1945) – was the topic of the most recent Senate health committee hearing. Last week, Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) made clear his plans to “move promptly” on introducing recommendations for the Committee’s consideration. After having already approved two mental health related bills this Congress, the Senate HELP Committee looks primed to achieve progress on such legislation before the year is out.

On the addictions side, the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (S. 524/H.R. 953) has continued to garner bipartisan, bicameral support since its introduction last winter. To date, CARA has over 90 cosponsors and was most recently discussed at length before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Original cosponsor Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) testified before the Committee this week, urging her colleagues “to quickly pass this bill so we can take meaningful action to help save lives.”


More Focused Legislative Initiatives

In addition to these three comprehensive initiatives, nearly two dozen, more targeted bills have been introduced over the last 12 months, including one of the National Council’s top legislative priorities – the Mental Health First Aid Act (S. 711/H.R. 1877). The Mental Health First Aid Act currently has 51 cosponsors. In December, a $15 million appropriation for Mental Health First Aid trainings was included in the federal budget for the third consecutive year.

As of this writing, two separate mental health-related bills have been approved by the Senate, including:

  • The Comprehensive Justice and Mental Health Act(S. 993/H.R.1854) passed the Senate in December and quickly moved through the House of Representatives in January. This important bill, which invests in mental health services for people in the criminal justice system, now waits for approval by the whole House before it can be sent to the President to become law.
  • The Mental Health Awareness and Improvement Act also passed the Senate in late December with overwhelming bipartisan support. This measure reauthorizes important programs in suicide prevention, mental illness awareness trainings such as Mental Health First Aid, and opioid abuse treatment services. However, this measure will likely stall in the House as no companion legislation has yet been introduced.


What to Expect Moving Forward

It is difficult to predict what Congress will achieve over the next year. Legislative business will most likely come to a grinding halt as legislators on both sides of Capitol Hill return home to run for reelection in the fall. However, the progress seen thus far on a number of these bills demonstrates movement in the right direction. The National Council thanks the thousands of advocates who have attended Hill Day and written or called your Members of Congress to express support for key legislative priorities. It is due in no small part to your efforts, that Congress has focused so much attention to improving and reforming our nation’s mental health and addiction care.

Please keep up the good work by marking the date for Hill Day 2016 in your calendar: June 6-7 at the Hyatt Regency hotel on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. At Hill Day 2016, we’ll continue our push for expanding the Excellence in Mental Health Act, infusing new resources into addiction treatment and recovery through the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, and much more. The 114th Congress has been one of the most proactive sessions in history for mental health and substance use related matters. Together, we’ll keep the pressure on Congress to push these critical initiatives across the finish line and pass them into law.