One Week in Washington: Mental Health Care Debate Continues

APR. 02, 2014

In the course of week, mental health care has had a high profile in the nation’s capital, including legislative action.

Congress has passed two mental health measures, contained in broader legislation setting Medicare reimbursement fees for doctors. The House of Representatives passed the bill on Thursday, March 27, followed by the Senate on Monday, March 31. It now moves to the White House for the President’s signature.

One provision in the bill establishes an eight-state “pilot program” to modernize services provided by community mental health clinics. The other authorizes “demonstration program” of federal grants for outpatient treatment for individuals living with mental illness who are not participating in treatment and have experienced adverse consequences such as homelessness, repeated hospitalizations or incarceration.

As the Senate prepared to vote on the Medicare bill on March 31, Virginia State Senator Creigh Deeds, whose son died from suicide late last year, spoke separately at the National Press Club across town indicating that broad, sustained reform is needed in the mental health care system.

Deeds, who ran for Virginia governor in 2009, declared: “The issue is much bigger than any one person’s experience.” In the wake of his family’s tragedy, NAMI has thanked him for his courage in helping to raise national attention to the cause.

Deeds’ broad perspective echoed voices from a March 26 House hearing that initially focused on the national shortage of psychiatric hospital beds.

NAMI Executive Director Mary Giliberti observed in a press statement about then hearing that people living with mental illness are being hit by a “double whammy.” There are not enough hospital beds to meet existing needs, while other mental services also are being starved.  Those services include:

  • Mental health screening and early intervention.
  • Crisis response and stabilization programs.
  • Discharge planning.
  • Outpatient services.
  • Peer support.
  • Assertive community treatment (ACT).
  • Supportive housing.
  • Jail diversion.

On March 28, following the House hearing and House vote, the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) convened a panel discussion on mental health care and what Congress can do. It included liberal perspective from U.S. Rep Patrick Kennedy (D-RI), who noted that mental illness is not a partisan issue. It can strike anyone at any time, including both Democrats and Republicans.

One witness at the March 26 House hearing was Hakeem Rahim, a mental health educator, who shared his personal story of recovery. Rahim first began speaking publicly about his experience through NAMI’s In Our Own Voice program. He is active with New York’s NAMI Queens/Nassau Affiliate.

Another House hearing focusing on the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act is scheduled for April 3. Like the previous events, it will be both streamed live and posted online.

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