Murphy stresses importance of mental health reforms

Roundtable held in Torrington

By:  Kurt Moffett
Republican American

TORRINGTON — A mental health reform bill co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., is expected to be reviewed and discussed by Congressional committees early next year.

Murphy on Monday led an hourlong roundtable discussion with a variety of medical professionals, state lawmakers, and city and school officials at Charlotte Hungerford Hospital. He said he wanted their input on whether his bill will make the changes necessary to fix a "broken" mental health system.

Murphy said his reform bill has significant momentum in Congress with support from both Democrats and Republicans, in light of the rash of fatal shootings nationwide over the last several years. The bill is co-sponsored with Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La.

Among those seated at the roundtable Monday was Vicki Coons, who said she hopes the bill emphasizes the importance of early detection of mental illness. She said she has suffered from depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction since she was 12.

"By the time I was 20, I was so addicted and so sick I couldn't function in society in a normal way, and that's when I started getting arrested," she said.

Murphy agreed that early detection and intervention are important, as well as the acknowledgement of the link between trauma and mental illness. He also said it is time that mental illness starts being treated at the same high level of expertise and professionalism as physical illnesses.

The bill, first introduced in August, would establish a grant program focused on intensive early intervention for children as young as age 3 who demonstrate significant risk factors for mental illness in adolescence and adulthood, Murphy's Web site states. A second grant program supports pediatrician consultation with mental health teams.

The bill also calls for the appointment of an assistant secretary for mental health and substance abuse within the federal Department of Health and Human Services. It would also ease some privacy restrictions to help parents of adult children obtain more information about their loved one's treatment, allocate more money for research into the causes and treatment of mental illness and remove a rule that bars Medicaid from paying for mental health treatment and physical health treatment on the same day.

Torrington Mayor Elinor C. Carbone, who attended Monday's roundtable, said early detection and intervention are "critical because I think that is going to be the only thing that addresses the long-term costs of" placing a special education student out of district or enrolling one or more at mid-year. Many school districts in Connecticut are hurting financially because of the high cost of special education.

"If there's room in this bill to identify any other way to direct some of the resources to help offset some of those costs, I think that would go a long way for a lot of the municipalities that bear the burden of funding them," Carbone said.

State Rep. Michelle Cook, D-Torrington, asked whether the bill would address those adults suffering mental illness who refuse help or do not seek it.

Murphy said he has heard many stories about those who decline assistance, yet really need it.

He said there are two ways to address that now: have a court require the person to pursue treatment or call the parents and have them grant permission.

In cases where patients cannot make a decision for themselves, existing law does allow medical professionals and caretakers to share patient information without their consent as long as the decision is in the best interests of the patient, Murphy said.

Murphy said his bill would clarify what best interests means, but said a change to the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), which protects the privacy of individually identifiable health information, would also "make a big difference." Medical professionals often say they cannot share patient information because of HIPAA.

Brian E. Mattiello, Charlotte Hungerford's vice president for organizational development, said he wondered how the impact or success of Murphy's bill would be measured.

Murphy said that unlike most matters of law, the metric for this bill would not be the amount of money spent or the number of admissions.

"The only thing that matters is how that person feels about themselves and about their life," he said. "This is really about making people feel like they have control of their lives again. So it's really hard to attach a data number to something without talking to that person."