How A New Mental Health Reform Bill Could Break The Party Divide
by ALEX ZIELINSKI –
It’s been nearly three years since the Senate held a hearing on mental health care.
The last meeting, sparked by the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary shooting that left 27 dead in Newton, Connecticut, called for an urgent, bipartisan solution to the country’s gaps in access to mental health care. But neither gun control policy or mental health legislation has advanced since.
Now, nearly 1,000 mass shootings later, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee has reconvened to push actual legislation into the spotlight. And this time, the bill featured touts a powerful promise: Bipartisan support.
Mental health care policy has historically been paired with gun control laws in Congress, making it a consistently complicated and drawn-out battle. Usually, GOP policymakers stick to their guns (literally) by pinning the spread of gun violence on the lack of comprehensive mental health care, and urging efforts focused solely on that area. However, those same Republicans have simultaneously blocked legislation geared toward expanding and improving that type of care.
Meanwhile, Democrats push for expanded gun control policy that is largely disconnected from the mental health sphere, based on solid data that very few people with mental health problems have violent tendencies — in fact, they are no more likely to be violent than anyone else. These lawmakers hope to shed some of the stigma associated with psychological diseases, countering the GOP’s — and the general public’s— view that mental health care reform is the key to preventing mass shootings.
But new legislation introduced by Senators Chris Murphy (D) and Bill Cassidy (R) may be able to break this divide. The bill follows the same outline as a 2013 GOP-led House bill, but cuts the controversial provisions concerning privacy rights — and may ultimately bring both parties to consensus.
Like the 2013 legislation, the new bill also seeks to increase Medicaid funding of mental health treatment, create more housing for mental health patients, and create a new mental health position within the Department of Health and Human Services.
At Thursday’s hearing, all committee Senators applauded the potential of Murphy and Cassidy’s legislation — but many remained wary of its success, based on past inaction related to gun policy and shrinking mental health budgets.
“The idea that Congress would witness people die by gun violence and refuse to take any action is irresponsible in the extreme,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren (D). “But to follow that up with congressional inaction by underfunding mental health research and then by refusing to support researchers… that could help us reduce gun violence and improve our mental health system — moves this Congress from irresponsible to culpable.”
“What meaningful research that might help us better understand the connection between mental health and gun deaths are we not conducting because of Congress’ ban?” Warren asked.
The hearing also focused on the number of incarcerated people struggling with mental health issues. The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that between 25 and 40 percent of all mentally ill Americans will be prisoners at some point in their lives. And around half of those already in prison or jail are dealing with mental health issues.
“Our criminal justice system has become the defacto mental health care system in country,” said Dr. Thomas Insel, the outgoing NIMH director who testified at the hearing. “I think that as you look at legislation, you can’t ignore that. What you’ve got to really ask is: ‘Is this the country we want to lead? Is this the way we want to treat people with a brain disorder?’”