Congress Reforms Mental Health Treatment

Bill Focuses on Consequences of Not Preventing Mental Health Including Homelessness

On December 7, 2016, the 21st Century Cures Act, a bill with a number of health care and justice provisions, was approved by Congress.

This landmark legislation mental health legislation requires equal insurance coverage for mental and physical health.

The bill extends grants to address homelessness and mental health and provides additional funding for new interventions.

Key provisions of the bill include:

  • fighting the opioid epidemic,
  • strengthening laws mandating parity for mental and physical health care
  • grants to increase the number of psychologists and psychiatrists, who are in short supply across the country, and
  • providing early intervention for psychosis, a treatment program.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) says he hopes to alleviate the suffering of people with serious mental illness.

“I’d heard too many devastating stories of people struggling with serious mental illness and addiction whose lives were forever changed because they couldn’t get the care they need,” Murphy says. “I’d seen up close the heartbreak and frustration that families suffered trying to find care for a loved one — care that seemed impossible to find and even harder to pay for.”

The bill is expected to be quickly signed by President Obama. But some members of Congress are expressing concern about what changes with the new Administration may bring and that it may not be funded although at the same time some recognize that funding this legislation in cheaper than doing nothing to treat mental illness.

Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ says he’s concerned that proposed Republican changes to the health care system could undercut any progress made by the bill.

Millions of Americans with mental illness could lose coverage if Congress repeals the Affordable Care Act or cuts spending on Medicaid, which pays for about 25 percent of all mental health care, he says.

Ronald Honberg, national director of policy and legal affairs at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, called the bill’s mental health provisions “necessary and promising.” He says he appreciates the bill’s focus on “preventing the most horrific consequences of untreated mental illness,” including homelessness, incarceration and suicide.

More specifically, regarding the impact this legislation will have on preventing and ending homelessness, including chronic homelessness:

  • States will be required to use at least 10 percent of their mental health block grants on early intervention for psychosis, using a model called coordinated specialty care, which provides a team of specialists to provide psychotherapy, medication, education and support for patients’ families, as well as services to help young people stay in school or their jobs. “Research from the National Institutes of Health shows that people who receive this kind of care stay in treatment longer; have greater improvement in their symptoms, personal relationships and quality of life; and are more involved in work or school compared to people who receive standard care.”
  • A $5 million grant program will provide assertive community treatment, one of the most successful strategies for helping people with serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. Like the early intervention program, assertive community treatment is designed to provide a team of professionals that is on call 24 hours a day. The bill also expands a grant program for assisted outpatient treatment. Both of these measures could have an impact in ending chronic homelessness.

“The legislation will help ‘those suffering from mental illness in the criminal justice system can begin to recover and get the help they need instead of just getting sicker and sicker,’ Senator John Cornyn says. ‘This bill also encourages the creation of crisis intervention teams, so that our law enforcement officers and first responders can know how to de-escalate dangerous confrontations. This is about finding ways to help the mentally ill individual get help while keeping the community safe at the same time.’”

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