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Michael Petruzzelli

, National Council for Behavioral Health

Fate of Mental Health Bills Unknown in Lame Duck Session

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Congress is on recess until after the November election. When they return to Washington, legislators will be faced with a number of high priority decisions that must be made in short order. From funding the federal government beyond December 9 to determining which legislative initiatives to vote on and pass before the year is out, advocates hope that Congress will take up a number of mental health bills before legislators close the books on the 114th Congress.

Here are some of the key legislative initiatives the National Council is monitoring for action in the lame duck session.

The Mental Health Reform Act (S. 2680)

A similar bill to the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act (H.R. 2646) that passed the House in June, S. 2680 reauthorizes a number of key programs under the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The National Council has been strongly advocating for the inclusion of provisions to expand the Excellence in Mental Health Act in S. 2680. These provisions would expand the Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinic demonstration program set to begin in January to 24 states, up from the current 8. S. 2680 has been approved by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and now awaits consideration by the full Senate chamber. Should S. 2680 be approved, the House and Senate would need to form a conference committee to reconcile any differences between the two bills before sending a final mental health bill to the President for his review and approval.

Fiscal Year 2017 Appropriations

As covered last week in the Capitol Connector, legislators did approve a short-term spending package, level-funding the federal government through December 9. When Congress returns to session in November, finalizing a budget for FY2017 should be one of its high priorities. The short-term spending package includes preliminary funding for the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA). The National Council hopes that the final spending bill will fully fund CARA’s grant programs.

However, it remains to be seen whether Election Day results will greatly impact either party’s strategies on funding the federal government. If the past is any indication, advocates can expect another continuing resolution, level-funding the federal government into the first year of the new presidential administration. In this environment, level funding should be considered a success by advocates. It would be mean continued funding for programs like:

  • Mental Health First Aid: $15 million
  • Primary and Behavioral Health Care Integration: $50 million
  • Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Block Grant: $1.8 billion
  • Mental Health Block Grant:  $511 million

21st Century Cures Act

There will be limited time for legislators to pass bills when they return, and a number of bills that are of high-priority for key legislators may be first in line for consideration. A longstanding priority for the Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), 21st Century Cures is a comprehensive legislative initiative designed to foster improvements and innovation throughout the U.S. health system. The bill invests millions in medical research and technology advances in medicine. The House passed its version in July. The Senate HELP Committee is still finalizing its version. Should the Senate pass 21st Century Cures legislation, legislators would need to establish a conference committee to remedy any differences.

The National Council is working closely with our legislative champions to move these initiatives forward. It is our hope that the expansion of the Excellence in Mental Health Act would move on any one of these bills or another vehicle this year. We will continue to notify advocates of opportunities to take action on securing votes and passage for these important bills. Legislation that does not pass this year must be reintroduced next year, building on the support gained in prior sessions.