Congress clashes over mental health laws: ‘The body count is always climbing’

WASHINGTON (MEDIA GENERAL) – Mental health is shaping up to be a top bipartisan issue in 2016 on Capitol Hill.

But crafting a bill suitable to both parties could be tough, as members of Congress proved Tuesday by unleashing pointed criticisms of a leading reform proposal in the House.

Rep. Tim Murphy’s (R-Pa.) bill, the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act, took center stage in a health subcommittee and quickly faced scorching critiques by Democratic opponents.

Rep. Murphy, who is also a clinical psychologist, opened by recalling a summer of deadly American tragedies spurred by mental illness and the all-too-familiar subsequent ceremony of lowering the congressional flag and observing a moment of silence.

“The body count is always climbing,” Murphy reminded colleagues, imploring them to be bold. “We need action, not silence.”

He faced anything but silence from the opposing party as left-leaning members ticked off a checklist of flaws they see in the bill.

The subcommittee’s top Democrat, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) argued that Murphy’s proposal “will do more harm than good,” by degrading patient privacy and shifting “funding away from substance abuse treatment” provided by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

Rep. Tim Murphy (center) of Pennsylvania urges colleagues to support mental health reform bill. (Photo credit: Chance Seales)
Rep. Tim Murphy (center) of Pennsylvania urges colleagues to support mental health reform bill. (Photo credit: Chance Seales)

‘Helping Families’ Bill

Murphy has already gathered 158 cosponsors for his ‘Helping Families,’ which he says will deliver resources for Americans in desperate need of mental health treatment, clear HIPAA red tape for their families, institute a mental health office in the Department of Health and Human Services and free up federal dollars for additional mental health research and assistance.

In committee, Murphy denounced the “bigoted belief” that mentally ill people are incapable of becoming more than their illness.

A group of six GOP congresswomen joined Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.) in a letter voicing their support for Murphy’s bill, writing, “This has a disproportionate impact on women, since women make up a sizable majority of those who rearrange their lives to care for children, parents, spouses, other family members and friends with mental illness.”

Mothers Urge Action

Mothers also showed up, in person, to display their support.

Advocates, many of them mothers of children battling mental illness, wore neon pink stickers urging members to pass Helping Families.

Tanya Shuy of Maryland was one of them. She lost her 26-year-old daughter Caitlyn to suicide in early September. Less than two months later, she is determined to see a change in the system she says sent her daughter to the grave.

“The biggest problem was HIPAA,” Shuy said soft but assuredly. Despite her daughter receiving inpatient treatment for suicidal ideation, the mother explains, “No doctors would speak to me. The hospital won’t speak to me…I don’t have a doctor who’s told me, ‘This is what your daughter had.’”

That’s why she supports Murphy’s bill.

The current version of the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act aims to clarify that mental health professionals are legally permitted to share critical diagnostic and treatment information with the parents or caregivers of patients experiencing serious mental illness.

Treatment or Prison Time

Supporters of Murphy’s bill like Rep. Susan Brooks (R-Ind.) also touted the benefits of routing patients to professionals rather than prisons.

Brooks, a former criminal defense attorney, echoed the sentiments of many members on both sides of the aisle. “Our jails and prisons have become the mental health hospitals and mental health facilities that used to be in place many years ago,” she said.

She concluded that the cycle only worsens over time, because, “it’s a downward spiral once they go into the criminal justice system.”

Democrats Object

The left side of the aisle roundly praised Murphy’s steadfastness, but took issue with three major elements of his bill: erosion of patient privacy, lack of investment, and certain court-mandated treatment programs.

For instance, Rep. Pallone used his time to predict that, “the proposed changes to HIPAA would weaken the privacy rights of individuals with diagnosed mental illness in a manner that would be unheard of if it were suggest for patients with physical illness.”

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) called mental health “a critical and emotional issue.” She even revealed personal ties to the issue, saying, “In my own immediate family we have struggled to find appropriate care for a loved one.” But that personal tie, Schakowsky says, is what keeps her from supporting the current version of Murphy’s bill, concluding that it doesn’t sufficiently invest in the nation’s mental health safety net.

“We simply cannot claim to be helping to solve this serious problem,” Schakowsky told attendees, since it cuts funding to SAMHSA’s substance abuse program. She then turned to her colleague from Pennsylvania, addressing him directly: “I plead with you, Mr. Murphy, we can do this. We can do this together.”

The final major sticking point is the assisted outpatient treatment (AOT) section, which would allow judges to order and enforce outpatient treatment programs rather than commit individuals to jail or inpatient facilities. Advocates say AOT ensures mental health problems are treated by professionals, not prison systems. On the other hand, opponents see it as a slippery slope of government overreach.

Path Forward

Wednesday will bring a first vote for Murphy’s mental health bill by the full health subcommittee. To become law, it would also require approval by the Energy Committee, House of Representatives, Senate and President Obama.

Similar mental health measures are percolating in the Senate, awaiting committee hearings. It’s unclear which proposal will prevail as the 114 Congress’ final mental health reform package, but a handful of options are currently moving to the fore.

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