Murphy proposes package of mental health reforms

By:  Tatiana Cirisano
CT Post

On the margins of a slew of mass shootings that have heightened awareness of mental illness, a growing stack of bills in Congress aim to overhaul the country’s mental health system. The latest to join the effort is Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy.

The Democrat introduced a bipartisan bill with Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., on Tuesday that would address what Murphy views as a “broken” mental health system in America by making mental health services more accessible.

More than 90,000 people in Connecticut are struggling with severe mental illness — and one in five adults nationwide. But nearly half of them will go untreated, often spiraling down a path of substance abuse, homelessness and even incarceration.

“It’s past time for Band-Aid, small-scale fixes,” Murphy said at a press conference.

Murphy said his bill is “part of a response” to a string of mass shootings across the country where the shooters were found to be mentally ill, including the Newtown shooting in 2012 where Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Lanza, who was autistic, is believed to have suffered from a combination of obsessive compulsive disorder and anorexia, among other issues.

Murphy’s bill would put mental and physical health services in the same building, establish grants for early intervention programs and repeal a provision in Medicaid that excludes inpatient care for many individuals between the ages of 22 and 64.

It would also appoint an assistant secretary of behavioral health, form a federal “Serious Mental Illness Coordination Committee” and establish a new mental health policy laboratory to find effective methods of care.

The reform effort comes after Murphy hosted 11 roundtables and listening sessions with local mental health advocates across Connecticut to hear their concerns.

“It’s about elevating the conversation here in Washington, making sure that behavioral health has a seat at the table at (the Department of Health and Human Services) in a way that we just fundamentally don’t believe it does today,” Murphy said.

The bill doesn’t touch on gun rights, an issue Murphy said should be dealt with separately from mental health reform. But he hopes his effort to strengthen the nation’s mental health system will reduce the likelihood of violence.

“The families in Sandy Hook, they want changes to our nation’s gun laws,” Murphy said. “But they don’t want our disagreements over those issues to stop us from making bipartisan progress on other issues that are important to them, like our broken mental health system.”

Rep. Tim Murphy, a Pennsylvania Republican, is pushing a companion bill in the House. Both congressmen will focus on clarifying the patient privacy rules under the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) to allow professionals to share information with parents and caregivers of the mentally ill.

Though the two bills align at many points — including their author’s last name — Sen. Murphy’s bill clashes with Rep. Murphy’s on the issue of patients’ rights.

While patients’ rights advocates argue that the mentally ill should be entitled to the same freedoms as someone with a physical illness like diabetes, others suggest that patients with severe mental illness should be subjected to court-ordered medication plans, or assisted outpatient treatment (AOT).

The bill Rep. Murphy introduced last Congress required states to use AOT to receive federal funding for their mental health programs, although the provision was later dropped. The current House bill provides additional funding through block grants to states that use the court-ordered treatment plans.

But Connecticut is one of only five states in the country that lacks AOT, and Sen. Murphy said he won’t support legislation that forces Connecticut to change this. The senator’s bill provides money through block grants for states that improve outcomes, regardless of whether or not they use AOT.

Sen. Murphy’s bill has the support of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and American Psychiatric Association, whose CEO and medical director, Saul Levin, applauded Murphy and Cassidy for their efforts at the press conference Tuesday.

He said their bill is part of a larger push in Congress to bring mental health reform to the forefront.

“The nation is beginning to run towards mental health care to take care of those with mental illness,” Levin said.