When President Kennedy signed the community Mental Health Act he called for a “bold new approach” and set out to shut down hundreds of inhumane “insane asylums” and move people into more effective community-based care. The idea was revolutionary, but in the fifty years since, the promise of this vision was never realized. What we have now is a fragmented, dysfunctional, and under-resourced system.
We live with the consequences of this broken system every day. All across America, people with mental illness, especially those with serious mental illness, fall through the cracks of society, end up homeless or re-institutionalized in prisons and jails, and some even deal with their paralyzing illness by acting out in violent ways.
This crisis recognizes no political lines. Every member of Congress knows someone or has a close friend or family member who has been victimized by a system that is either too confusing to navigate, too thinly resourced to deal with increasing demand, or offers no realistic alternatives for those suffering the most.
We think it's time for Republicans and Democrats in Congress to come together around legislation that would realize the hope of comprehensive mental health helps protects both the patient and the community. That's why together we've introduced the Mental Health Reform Act of 2015.
Central to the bill is the recognition of the importance of building more effective partnerships among health and mental health care providers that ensures patient and family centered care. These include coordinated care models that promote the integration of physical and mental health and ensure that patients and their families have easy access to services with one visit. Why is this so important? Research has shown that our current system is too fragmented and fails mental health patients, especially the seriously mentally ill, whose life expectancy is 24 years lower than the average American.
We also address the need for families to have medical information. A lack of understanding and consistent misinterpretations of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA). HIPAA’s privacy rules have created barriers for parents and caregivers to be included in the care plan with families caring for the seriously mentally ill experiencing the worst impact. The bill provides for modifications and model training programs for health care providers, attorneys, consumers, and family members to improve understanding regarding when information can be shared.
Telehealth options will improve access especially in underserved areas, while offering early childhood interventions can address mental health issues early and keep them from getting worse.
The bill provides reforms on the federal level that will further improve services. We can no longer tolerate jails and prisons as “de facto” mental health care. By restructuring and elevating federal mental health programs, the identification and dissemination of best practices and evidence-based models will improve and be easily shared across the federal system.
We also tackle head-on the paralyzing problem of a system that simply doesn’t have enough inpatient or outpatient capacity to deal with the number of people with mental illness living today in America. Our bill changes an outdated reimbursement system so that hospitals can open more short term inpatient psychiatric beds for individuals in crisis, and primary care physicians can open up practices right next to mental health professional and not be penalized for coordination. And our bill opens new pathways of training for mental health professionals, like child and adolescent psychiatrists – we need to admit that 8,300 child psychiatrists can’t be enough when twenty percent of all 13-18 year olds are living with a mental health condition.
In today’s political climate, it’s not often that a conservative Republican from Louisiana and a progressive Democrat from Connecticut agree on major policy reforms. But we have both witnessed how our broken mental health system devastates American families. These issues are too important – too personal – to allow partisan politics to intrude on commonsense solutions. We’ve worked for months to craft a comprehensive bill that makes America’s mental health system more responsive to the needs of families, and we’ll continue working with our colleagues in the Senate and in the House until it’s signed into law.
Murphy is Connecticut’s junior senator, serving since 2013. He sits on the Appropriations; the Foreign Relations; and the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committees. Cassidy is Louisiana’s junior senator, serving since 2015. He sits on the Appropriations; the Energy and Natural Resources; the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions; and the Veterans’ Affairs committees.