Sen. Chris Murphy, at podium, with Sen. Bill Cassidy, right, and Mary Gilberti at rear. CTMirror File Photo
Sen. Chris Murphy, at podium, with Sen. Bill Cassidy, right, and Mary Gilberti at rear.
Sen. Chris Murphy, at podium, with, left to right, Mary Gilberti, Saul Levin, and Sen. Bill Cassidy, far right. CTMirror File Photo

Washington – Sen. Chris Murphy has teamed up with a Republican colleague from Louisiana to press for an overhaul of the nation’s mental health system at a time when Congress – stung by a rash of mass shootings  by mentally unstable people – may be willing to consider changes.

Legislation introduced Tuesday by Murphy and Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., would establish a new assistant secretary for mental health and substance abuse and establish a new grant program for early intervention aimed at helping young children.

Their bill also would require the federal government to audit compliance with the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that there be parity between insurance benefits for physical health services and mental illnesses.

“Discrimination continues to happen in insurance plans,” Murphy said.

The legislation would also repeal the current Medicaid exclusion for inpatient mental health care for individuals between 22 and 64 years old. That could burden both the federal government and the states, which share the cost of the Medicaid program, with new costs.

The senators said their bill has not yet been scored for cost, but said they expected it to be minimal.

Cassidy said there have been instances where increasing behavioral health coverage has actually lowered costs.

“If someone is no longer inebriated and therefore doesn’t get into a (car) crash…you’ve lowered costs,” he said.

The bill was introduced at a time where interest in mental health issues in Congress has spiked because of a rash of mass shootings by suspects considered mentally unstable. Those include the killing of nine parishioners in a black church in Charleston, S.C.; the shooting deaths of four Marines and a Navy sailor in Chattanooga, Tenn.; and the gunning down of two young women and the wounding of others in a movie theater in Lafayette, La.

One of the reasons Murphy gave for introducing the bill is “the increasing incidences of violence.”

“It’s past time for Band-Aids and small-scale fixes,” he said.

Supported by major mental health organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and the American Psychiatric Association, the “Mental Health Reform Act” has a companion in the U.S. House of Representatives, introduced by Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa.

But the House bill contains a provision the Senate bill does not. It would give block grant funds to states that provide “assisted outpatient treatments,” a court-ordered treatment for people with severe mental illness, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Generally, these individuals are too ill to recognize they need medical care and have a history of failing to take their medication.

The Senate bill provides money for states through the block grant that improves outcomes, regardless of whether they provide the outpatient treatment.

But Connecticut is one of six states – the others are Maryland, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Nevada and Tennessee – that does not have a law allowing courts to order treatment.

Both Murphy and Cassidy are members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and say they have a commitment to try to move their legislation through the panel.

This week, the HELP Committee will consider a narrower bill that would address suicide prevention and children’s recovery from trauma.

The Murphy-Cassidy bill would also:

— Encourage states to break down walls between physical and mental health care, including providing guidance on and clarifying patient privacy laws to increase communication. The APA says about 40 percent of the people who visit a primary care physician have a mental illness, but their doctors don’t know it.

— Establish a Serious Mental Illness Coordinating Committee at the Department of Health and Human Services to promote research and treatment.

— Establish a new national Mental Health Policy Laboratory that would fund new health innovation grants.

Ana has written about politics and policy in Washington, D.C.. for Gannett, Thompson Reuters and UPI. She was a special correspondent for the Miami Herald, and a regular contributor to The New York TImes, Advertising Age and several other publications. She has also worked in broadcast journalism, for CNN and several local NPR stations. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Journalism.

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