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A Bipartisan Holiday Success: Excellence in Mental Health Act

Linda Rosenberg

Former President and CEO, National Council for Behavioral Health

A Bipartisan Holiday Success: Excellence in Mental Health Act

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These days, it doesn’t seem like lawmakers in Washington, DC agree on much. The partisan debates can seem endless.

But last week, members of an influential Senate committee took an important vote – important not only for what it would do to expand Americans’ access to mental health and addiction treatment, but also for what it symbolized of the broad bipartisan consensus on this important issue.

Here’s what happened:

The Senate Finance Committee on Thursday held a “markup” of a bill to reform the Medicare physician payment formula (that’s DC-speak for amending and voting on a bill).

During the hearing, Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) offered an amendment to add an Excellence in Mental Health Act demonstration project to the Medicare bill. The National Council for Behavioral Health has long supported the Excellence Act, which would expand access to evidence-based community healthcare for children and adults with serious and persistent mental illnesses.

With several Senators from both sides of the aisle speaking in favor of the Stabenow-Grassley amendment, it passed on a voice vote (that’s DC-speak for a nearly unanimous consent).

What makes me so excited about this vote is how far we’ve come since the Excellence Act was first introduced in Congress four years ago. Such a strong bipartisan vote of approval – from such an influential committee – is a step we only dreamed of back then. Now, the Excellence Act demonstration project is riding along on a bill that is considered to be “must-pass” legislation in 2014.

Will the Excellence Act stay along for the whole ride? I don’t know. There is still a long way to go between committee markup and being enacted into law. But last week’s vote was a major step forward for this bill, and for our field.

On behalf of the National Council, our 2,100 member organizations, and the 8 million Americans they serve, I extend our sincere thanks and gratitude to Senator Debbie Stabenow, who has tirelessly championed the Excellence Act for years and whose passionate leadership has been critical in garnering the strong bipartisan support for this bill that we see today. Thanks are also due to Senator Grassley, the cosponsor of the amendment, along with Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO), Congresswoman Doris Matsui (D-CA), and Congressman Leonard Lance (R-NJ), who are the chief authors of the Senate and House versions of the Excellence Act. Senators Max Baucus (D-MT), Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), and Ron Wyden (D-OR) spoke out in favor of the Act at Thursday’s markup, and Congressman Tim Murphy (R-PA) has included the Excellence Act in his recently released mental health reform bill. These lawmakers, along with their Republican and Democratic colleagues who have cosponsored the legislation, are true leaders in our fight to finally bring parity to the healthcare safety net.

And just as important, an enormous thank you goes out to the thousands of advocates who have asked their legislators to support the Excellence Act, both at Hill Day 2013 and through the National Council’s Action Alerts. You may not even be aware of the difference your voice makes, but I can tell you that we see the effects of your advocacy every day. It is the vocal support from constituents like you that helps win the growing support we’ve seen in Congress.

So, in the midst of this year filled with high-profile stories about Congressional gridlock, we must look beyond the hype to see where bipartisan cooperation is taking place. Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike recognize the importance of investing in our mental health and addiction treatment system. We have come too far to turn back  —  and our nation has suffered too much. I urge all members of Congress to
 support this life saving legislation — it will make our communities healthier
and stronger, and it is an investment we can no longer put off.

Working together this holiday season and beyond, we can achieve our shared goal of making sure that all Americans have access to high-quality treatment in their communities.