Sen. Chris Murphy

Washington – A key committee on Wednesday voted unanimously to send a mental health bill sponsored by Sen. Chris Murphy to the Senate floor, but not until certain provisions were dropped.

The Mental Health Reform Act, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., would establish a new a new assistant secretary for mental health and substance abuse and establish a new grant program for early intervention aimed at helping children and young adults.

The bill that cleared the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) committee Tuesday by voice vote would also clarify medical privacy law to make it clear that health professionals can share information with family members of the mentally ill.

It also would establish a new federal office to encourage the adoption of evidence-based mental health programs.

“This is an important bill – this is going to make a difference,” Murphy said. “It’s rare that Republicans and Democrats can get together on something this comprehensive.”

But during what he called “negotiations on a knife-edge,” certain original provisions in the bill had to be abandoned.

One would have repealed the current Medicaid rule that excludes paying for inpatient mental health care for individuals between 22 and 64 years old. That would have burdened both the federal government and the states, which share the cost of the Medicaid program, with new costs.

Murphy said the HELP Committee isn’t an appropriation committee with jurisdiction over funding, “so we have to go to the floor with, I hope, a bipartisan commitment to come up with new resources to make sure that we’re addressing the severe lack of inpatient and outpatient capacity.”

HELP committee members also modified another provision that would have addressed the issue of mental health parity, that is a requirement that insurers cover mental health illnesses like they cover physical infirmities.

“What’s happened is that insurance companies put up a lot of barriers” to paying for mental health treatments, Murphy said.

The original bill required the federal government to audit insurers for compliance with a federal requirement that there be parity between insurance benefits for physical and mental illnesses.

Now the bill would give insurance companies new guidance on how to comply with the law and would limit the audit of insurers to plans that routinely show an inability to meet the requirements of the parity law.

“Little things were stripped away, but it was understood they would be stripped away,” said Angela Kimaball, policy director at the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.

She said, “The bill as a whole is a step forward, but it isn’t everything.”

Still, Kimball said, it will strengthen mental health parity, and it’s the first time in decades Congress has tackled the nation’s mental health issues in a comprehensive way.

Murphy hopes the full Senate will approve the bill.

“This is the first time a comprehensive mental health bill has gotten this far,” Murphy said. A similar bill in the U.S. House of Representatives sponsored by Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Fla., is stalled in the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

“Our hope is that the Senate action gives the House a little shove,” Murphy said.

HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander said he expects a Senate vote on the Mental Health Reform Act in the spring.

“One in five adults in this country suffers from a mental illness, and nearly 60 percent aren’t receiving the treatment they need,” he said.

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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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