For the first time since the 2012 Sandy Hook school shootings, the U.S. Senate on Thursday held a hearing on legislation to overhaul the nation's mental health system.
"The train is officially out of the station and on the tracks,'' Sen. Chris Murphy declared on Thursday, shortly after the hearing adjourned. "We could perhaps pass the most comprehensive mental health reform ... since the 1960s."
Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, and Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Republican from Louisiana, are sponsoring a far-reaching bill that proposes changes to the way behavioral health care is delivered in the U.S.
The bill 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 provide grants to encourage the development of programs that focus on early intervention for children as young as 3.
And it would also increase funding for additional outpatient and inpatient treatment slots, add new enforcement provisions to the mental health parity law and ease some privacy restrictions to help parents of adult children obtain more information about their loved one's treatment.
Should Be Doubling Mental Health Funding
The legislation would 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.
The bipartisan proposal was framed as a response to Sandy Hook and other mass shootings. But both Murphy and Cassidy said reforming the mental health system should also be seen as a separate issue.
"We have never framed this bill as simply a response to gun violence,'' Murphy said, citing research showing that people with mental health disorders are far more likely to be victims of violence than the perpetrators.
In the years since the Sandy Hook shootings, efforts to pass stricter gun control laws have stalled at the federal level.
"I understand many of my friends are worried that moving on mental health reform will forsake the ability to do other things that would reduce gun violence,'' Murphy said. "Families in Newtown want changes in our gun laws, but they don't want disagreement on those changes to stop us from moving forward on mental health legislation.''
And Cassidy, a physician, said support for reforming the mental health system is driven as much by personal experience with mental illness as a desire to stem gun violence. He said constituents routinely approach him with heartrending tales of a family member's struggles with behavioral health issues. "It cuts across demographic lines,'' he said.
Thursday's hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee is the first time the chamber has tackled mental health since Sandy Hook. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, who chairs the committee, said the hearing was an attempt to understand the federal government's role in mental health treatment.
In addition to the Cassidy-Murphy bill and a separate proposal put forth by Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, Alexander said he expects "additional legislation in the upcoming months that better supports states in addressing mental health and substance use disorder programs in their communities."
The bill championed by Murphy and Cassidy is similar to a House bill proposed by Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pennsylvania. But the House bill goes further in easing patient privacy protections to make it easier to share medical information with family members. It also contains a provision, unpopular with Democrats, that would provide incentives to states to establish programs allowing judges to order mentally ill people into treatment.
Chris Murphy said he is confident the differences between the House and Senate versions can be bridged.
"The story of these two bills is the similarities and not the differences," he said during a conference call with reporters Thursday afternoon. "There is inescapable momentum behind mental health reform in this Congress. I wish the momentum wasn't before us because of these mass tragedies, but the reality is, you have a really unlikely combination of conservative Republicans and progressive Democrats in the House and the Senate on the same path forward in a way you don't find with almost any other issue."