Help for Families in Mental Health Crisis bill gains phenomenal bi-partisan support on the Hill, and offers hope for real reform.
Would you believe it if someone told you the U.S. House of Representatives, criticized for being hyperpartisan, passed a comprehensive overhaul to an entire segment of the health care system last month — with 99.53 percent of the chamber voting “yes” on the bill? If you said no, you would be wrong. On July 6, the House passed, by a vote of 422-2, the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act, the most significant reform of the nation’s mental health system since the Kennedy administration.
As chair of the House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, following the 2012 tragedy in Newtown, Conn., I led an investigation into America’s broken mental health system. The nearly four-year process of hearings, testimonies and data collection revealed the shameful state of mental health care in our nation: a wasteful bureaucracy that invests $130 billion in more than 100 federal programs while the rates of suicide, homelessness and incarceration among those experiencing serious mental illness increase year after year. In fact, those with serious mental illness are now 10 times more likely to land in a prison cell than in a hospital bed.
From that investigation I drafted the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act (HR 2646), which reforms our mental health system by focusing resources and policies where they’re most needed, fostering evidence-based care, addressing the shortage of psychiatric hospital beds, empowering patients and caregivers under HIPAA privacy laws, and helping patients get treatment well before their illness spirals into crisis.
Those in treatment are 15 times less likely to be engaged in an act of violence than those who go untreated, but too often — nearly 50 percent of the time — individuals with serious mental illness are too sick to realize they need medical attention. My bill invests in evidence-based programs, such as assisted outpatient treatment. This program provides the patients who are hardest to treat and have a history of arrest, repeat hospitalizations and violence with community-based care (which has been proven to reduce violence, imprisonment, homelessness, substance abuse and costly emergency room visits for the seriously mentally ill by upwards of 70 percent).
If our nation was short 100,000 intensive care units or cancer treatment beds it would be branded as a national crisis and immediate corrective actions would be taken. However, during our investigation we discovered that there is a shortage of 100,000 psychiatric beds — the ICUs for mental health patients — and that shortage is getting worse each year. The Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act modifies an antiquated billing policy in Medicaid that has hindered the efforts to provide this needed inpatient care for individuals with serious mental illness.
While we know that families are the frontline care-delivery team for a person who suffers from mental illness, federal privacy laws routinely thwart their efforts to play a role in getting their loved one the treatment they deserve. My bill lays out a series of adjustments to the HIPAA Privacy Rule that would allow families access to medical diagnosis, prescriptions, and time and place of appointments — small details that save lives.
My committee has identified the problems in our broken system and formulated solutions to fix them in the form of the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act. Right now, the solution sits in the Senate, awaiting action from lawmakers after Labor Day weekend. While we wait, mental illness takes 900 lives each day, directly or indirectly. It’s time for our nation to come together and pass the solution: the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act. Will the Senate stand with the 99.53 percent?
First appeared in Las Vegas Sun. Reprinted with permission.
Tim Murphy is a Congressman from Pennsylvania.