U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy in Torrington: Mental Health Reform Act offers ‘real change’

By:  Ben Lambert
The Register Citizen

TORRINGTON >> U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy told a gathering of healthcare providers and others Monday that a bill he has co-written on mental health reform offers an opportunity for “some real change on the ground.”

A number of Charlotte Hungerford Hospital doctors and administrators, Mayor Elinor Carbone, state Rep. Michelle Cook, D-Torrington, and representatives of a number of local governmental branches, care providers and service organizations were there to take in a breakdown of “The Mental Health Reform Act,” and share their thoughts and concerns.

Murphy, D-Connecticut, has authored the bill with U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Louisiana, in an effort to address gaps in The Community Mental Health Act of 1963 and institute and bolster initiatives to care for those struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues.

“If you talk to people who work in and around this broad issue in Washington, they’ll tell you in their careers ... they’ve never felt more positive about the potential to get something meaningful done on the issue of mental health and behavioral health than right now,” said Murphy, who cited the series of mass shootings that have rocked families, communities, and the country as a development that has spurred Congress to consider the issue.

Some of the key measures in the bill, as discussed Monday, include: repealing the “current Medicaid exclusion on in-patient care,” in an effort to make more short-term in-patient beds available; grants and changes to Medicaid billing practices designed to integrate physical and mental health care; the creation of an assistant secretary for mental health and substance use disorders within the Department of Health and Human Services; additional funding and grants for a number of aspects of the mental health care system, including early childhood intervention and increasing the number of young people trained to work in the mental health field; and changes to HIPAA that aim to clarify the requirements that govern the sharing of patient information between practitioners and organizations.

“I think if this bill passes, things get better. It doesn’t fix it,” said Murphy. “But I think if this bill passes, it’s not just a ‘check the box’ moment for Congress. It’s a moment where you can see some real change on the ground.”

Daniel McIntyre, the president of Charlotte Hungerford Hospital, and Brian Mattiello, the hospital vice president of organizational development and former state representative, thanked Murphy for his efforts and reacted positively to the concepts of the bill.

“Having gone through the outline here, it looks like a very exciting and well-thought and long, long, long overdue act,” said McIntyre. “We laud your efforts here.”

Murphy developed the legislation with the input of a number of healthcare providers, who took part in 12 “roundtables” held over the course of the year throughout Connecticut.

As part of this process, he came to Torrington earlier in the year to visit a newly-opened wing at the Community Health and Wellness Center, and speak with Joanne Borduas, the chief executive officer of the wellness center, as he worked to develop the legislation.

After he went through a brief presentation outlining some of the key aspects of the bill, the resulting discussion touched on a number of the provisions it contains, as well as a wide-range of other issues facing service providers in the community.

These included the importance of early-childhood intervention, the need to provide more resources for mental health service organizations, including those that serve native Spanish speakers; providing more, longer-term care to aid those battling addiction; the rising rate of issues stemming from dementia that have come with an aging population; the mounting fiscal pressure on school districts from the need to provide behavioral and mental counseling for students, and the need for long-term care options for mental health patients unable to function independently in society.

A “consumer,” who has battled mental health issues and addiction for most of her life, also shared her thoughts with the senator, touching on, among other aspects of her experience, the value of ongoing programs for those in need, so they can remain connected to care over time.

Murphy ended the meeting Monday morning with a request, calling upon those in the room to provide further input on the bill, as it winds its way through the legislative process, and help to determine measurable outcomes for success to help guide and refine the mental health care system over time.

“On this piece, just help us have this conversation about how you can keep consumers at the very center of this conversation, so we’re not creating some outcomes metric that really doesn’t have to do with the quality of their life moving forward,” said Murphy.

There are currently 14 Democrats and 14 Republicans supporting the bill in the Senate, according to Murphy, and “50 some-odd” House Republicans. It has also been endorsed by a number of national organizations, including the American Medical Association, Sandy Hook Promise, and the American Psychiatric and Psychological Associations.

Murphy and Cassidy are aiming to bring supporters in the Senate on in pairs, aiming to make plain the bipartisan support for the act.

The bill has been considered during one hearing of the health committee thus far, with another in January, according to Murphy, and a similar bill has already passed through the committee level in the House of Representatives.

The complete text of “The Mental Health Reform Act” is available online for public perusal.