Advocates cheer mental health reforms in Cures bill
Congress took an important first step in improving the nation’s struggling system of care for millions of Americans suffering from mental illness and drug addiction by including a sweeping package of mental healthcare and addiction treatment reforms as part of the 21st Century Cures Act.
The House-backed bill authorized $1 billion over the next two years to address the nation’s opioid abuse crisis, and would authorize or re-authorize smaller amounts of funding for a wide range of federal grants for mental health and substance abuse services. Congress would still have to appropriate that money.
Mental health advocates expressed cautious optimism that Presidentelect Donald Trump’s administration and congressional Republican leaders will support that funding—even though House Speaker Paul Ryan and other GOP leaders have promised to cut taxes, boost military outlays and reduce discretionary federal spending.
“A lot of advocacy will have to occur around getting some of these initiatives funded,” said Ron Honberg, senior policy adviser at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a coalition of advocacy groups. He and other advocates worry, however, that GOP plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act could undercut the benefits of the new legislation.
For now, though, they are celebrating the pending bill’s mental health provisions, drawn mainly from the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act, which passed the House 422-2 in July. The legislation creates a new HHS assistant secretary in charge of mental health and substance abuse disorders; authorizes grants for community treatment teams and assisted outpatient treatment for noncooperative patients; and creates a path to allow Medicaid managed-care plans to pay for shortterm inpatient stays.
The House-backed bill authorized $1 billion over the next two years to address the nation’s opioid abuse crisis.
In addition, the bill requires HHS to clarify when providers may share patient information. It would also step up enforcement of rules for insurers to cover mental healthcare on parity with physical health; boost support for training more mental health professionals; help providers more easily track available inpatient beds; support a wide range of programs to combat suicide and improve screening, early diagnosis and early intervention for mental illness in children; and push to reduce incarceration of nonviolent, mentally ill offenders.
Hospitals and physicians will welcome a provision clarifying that Medicaid is allowed to pay providers for the delivery of mental health and primary-care services to a patient on the same day, ending a source of frustration for primary-care providers.
Providers and families of behavioral health patients also may welcome provisions that require HHS and the Office for Civil Rights to clarify when providers can use patient information protected by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act for treatment purposes and share such information with patients’ family members and caregivers.
On opioid treatment, the new bill resolves, for now, a partisan battle over funding for the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, for which President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats demanded more money. CARA strengthens prevention, treatment and recovery initiatives by giving providers and law enforcement officials more tools to help drug addicts and expanding access to a drug to help reverse overdoses.
Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), a psychologist who was the chief author of the House mental health bill, said the single most important provision is establishing an assistant HHS secretary in charge of mental health and substance abuse to drive and coordinate federal policy in this area. “We have to restructure the agencies to work together and make sure money is spent wisely and we’re focusing on serious mental illness, not wasteful feel-good things,” he said in an interview last month.