Changes To Mental Health Bill Don’t Satisfy Democrats Or Advocates
By Shannon Muchmore Modern Healthcare November 4, 2015
Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) offered changes to his mental health reform bill Wednesday, including altered language on assisted outpatient treatment, patient privacy and electronic health-record requirements.
Democrats say their amendments were not being taken seriously despite Murphy’s pledge to seek bipartisan support, and advocates now say the bill has been weakened.
The Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act was the most discussed bill in the markup from the Energy and Commerce Committee’s Health Subcommittee. A Senate mental health bill with many of the same provisions is scheduled for markup early next year.
Murphy’s amendment requires doctors to be trained on permissible disclosure of patient information to avoid violations of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. Murphy also refined some changes to allow information to be shared with caregivers.
The amendment also clarifies that all states can receive community mental health block grants, regardless of whether they have laws allowing involuntary outpatient treatment. States with such laws will be eligible for extra funding.
In announcing his amendment, Murphy said his bill would save lives by helping prevent violent acts and deaths from mental illness. He added that most people who are mentally ill are not violent.
“For the sake of millions of suffering families, this has to end and the time is now,” he said.
Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) said the bill cuts away essential funding, stigmatizes mental illness, reduces privacy protections and doesn’t do enough to promote Medicaid expansion in all states.
“This legislation takes us back to outdated and biased treatment,” he said.
The bill has been discussed at countless meetings with legislative staff and mental health advocates, but Republicans never actually addressed Democratic concerns, he said.
Pallone has some added skin in the game: He has a substitution amendment that would use evidence-based treatment to stop crises and promote early intervention, with the hope, he says, of revamping the entire behavioral health system.
“True reform cannot occur by shifting around current resources,” he added.
Another amendment to Murphy’s bill comes from Rep. Gene Green (D-Texas), who called for an audit of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration as a response to Republican complaints that the agency doesn’t allocate funds in the most effective manner.
Green said he did not think an audit was needed and that even with the new amendment, Murphy’s bill would cut resources for SAMHSA, which should be reformed instead.
Both the Green and Pallone amendments were voted down along party lines.
John Snook, executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center, said any changes to the bill’s original requirements for HIPAA and court-ordered outpatient treatment would cause it to lose focus on the severely mentally ill. He remains encouraged the need for reform will win out.
“Unfortunately, what we’re seeing is more political theater than actual discussion of issues,” he said. “The bill has broad bipartisan support precisely because it deals with those sorts of issues. Stripping them out makes the bill a waste of time and effort.”