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Murphy's mental health bill approved by House

| Wednesday, July 6, 2016, 11:00 p.m.
U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA)
U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA)

Pennsylvania Republican Tim Murphy's proposal to revamp the nation's mental health care system is headed to the Senate after receiving bipartisan support Wednesday in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The proposal would establish an assistant secretary post to oversee the nation's mental health programs, take steps to expand access to psychiatric hospital beds, expand caregiver access to medical records of mentally ill patients, add mental health services in Medicare and Medicaid and support new research, among other changes.

“This historic vote closes a tragic chapter in our nation's treatment of serious mental illness and welcomes a new dawn of help and hope,” Murphy wrote in a statement. “We are ending the era of stigma.”

Democrats who voted for the bill were more restrained, calling the bill a “first step” to correct a problem that will require more money to truly solve. A Congressional Budget Office analysis showed the bill would reduce Medicaid spending by about $5 million over 10 years.

“While we still have a long ways to go, this is certainly a step forward,” Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, the bill's lead Democratic cosponsor, said in testimony before the vote.

“The end result is a bill that remains focused on enabling the most severely and mentally ill to access treatment they desperately deserve while allowing their families and caregivers to help them along the way,” Johnson said.

Murphy started working on the legislation after the 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Conn., and has revised it several times to garner more support. It passed the House on a 422-2 vote. The American Psychiatric Association, the National Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health America all support the legislation.

“Comprehensive mental health reform is urgently needed in our country, and this bipartisan legislation helps address this critical need,” APA President Dr. Maria Oquendo said. “We now strongly urge the Senate to take up mental health reform legislation that will make care more available to those who need it, especially patients and families living with serious mental illness. We look forward to working with Congress to pass mental health reform this year.”

Other mental health proposals have been introduced in the Senate, including a bill from Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., and Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.

John Head, a spokesman for Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, said the latest version of the bill is better than earlier versions, but the group still has concerns related to privacy and to programs that support involuntary outpatient treatment, which the group says has not been proven more effective than voluntary treatment.

“We will work toward further improvements as the Senate crafts its version of reform of our mental health care system,” Head said.

Lynn Keltz, executive director of the Pennsylvania Mental Health Consumers' Association, echoed Head's concerns.

“What we need to see in any bill is legislated funding for community mental health services,” Keltz said. “We can make all the rules and policy decisions we want, but if we don't fund them, nothing's going to change.”

Wes Venteicher is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5676.

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