Congress is painfully close to passing mental health reform

The Denver Post

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Washington, DC, September 10, 2016 | By The Denver Post Editorial Board | comments

One of the best attempts to improve America’s mental health crisis in decades will stall if the U.S. Senate does not get its act together before it goes on another month-long break.  Freshly back from vacation, senators should pass Rep. Tim Murphy’s Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act.

Murphy, a Republican from Pennsylvania and a clinical psychologist, has seen firsthand the challenges that people with mental health disorders face. Social stigma and inadequate public support for treatment leave them with few options.

The Affordable Care Act, for all its flaws, got it right when it mandated mental health parity. Providers and insurers are supposed to treat illnesses of the mind on par with illnesses of the body. A health issue is a health issue.

Murphy’s bill originated in the aftermath of the 2012 Newtown, Conn., mass shooting. It just took this long for a compromise bill to advance in a divided Congress.

More than 11 million adults suffer from a mental illness, and almost half of them do not seek treatment or cannot find it. For some, friends and families fill the void. But the lives of too many others fall apart. They lose jobs and end up living on the streets, or they suffer in secret until something snaps and they harm themselves or others.

That last group is far too familiar to Coloradans. Our state has witnessed mentally troubled mass killers more than most, and our suicide rate is one of the highest in the country.

Murphy recently told The Denver Post editorial board about conversations he’s had with leaders in cities across the country: “They always say, as we’ve emptied our asylums — which we needed to — this is where we’ve now placed mentally ill people: prisons, homeless on the streets, tied to a bed in an emergency room or the county morgue.”

His bill would increase psychiatric bed space so that people have a place to receive evidence-based care. It also would create a federal assistant secretary to oversee mental health policies. That person could provide missing coordination of programs and funding that span multiple agencies.

Other elements of the bill include a grant program for suicide prevention and expanded Medicaid benefits for youth who receive inpatient care. It relies on states to implement best practices for their residents with support, not mandates, from Washington.

The bill sailed through the House with overwhelming bipartisan support. Colorado Reps. Mike Coffman and Scott Tipton were both cosponsors.

Its prospects in the Senate are murky. Colorado Sens. Cory Gardner and Michael Bennet have both supported mental health reform in the past. Indeed, there is bipartisan support for this bill.

However, Texas Sen. John Cornyn wants to use mental health legislation to push gun rights. Democrats, of course, won’t support that and would filibuster a bill that they otherwise support.

Whether one supports or opposes loosening access to guns, surely most people agree that a mental health bill is not the proper vehicle. Congress is tantalizingly close to accomplishing something that will address the nation’s deplorable treatment of the mentally ill. It should not fall victim to the hyperpartisan gun debate.

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