By Deirdre Shesgreen
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., joined with six other lawmakers Thursday to push a new proposal aimed at expanding and improving access to mental health services at community clinics around the country.
The legislation would allow community mental health centers to snag more federal funding if they meet certain criteria, such as providing 24-hour psychiatric care and integrating physical checkups with mental health services. Proponents said it would allow such clinics to serve an additional 1.5 million patients a year.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., co-sponsor of the bill, said it would cost about $1 billion over 10 years.
Experts estimate that more than half of those who suffer from severe mental disorders do not receive treatment in a given year. People with mental illnesses are often more likely to be uninsured than those with physical diseases, so access to care is critical.
"I'm a supporter of parity (for mental health care) in insurance coverage, but it doesn't help if you don't have insurance," Blunt said at a news conference Thursday unveiling the measure, which has bipartisan support. "You need somewhere to go."
Thursday's legislative effort drew Hollywood star power, with movie director David O. Russell joining the news conference. His recent film, "Silver Linings Playbook," tells the story of a man with bipolar disorder trying to rebuild his life after being released from a mental health institution.
But the fresh attention to mental health is being driven less by Russell's Oscar-nominated movie and more by the Dec. 14 massacre that left 20 children and six adults dead at an elementary school in Connecticut. Some media reports have suggested the gunman in that rampage, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, had a history of mental problems, although no concrete evidence has emerged to confirm that yet.
While many Democrats have touted gun control measures in the wake of the Connecticut shooting, Blunt and others have said improving mental health services is the best way to reduce gun violence.
"People have problems that they haven't figured out how to deal with and then they deal with them in a tragic way," Blunt said, noting that several gunmen involved in mass shootings have had some history of mental health problems. "The moment has brought focus to what we need to be doing to be doing about mental health."
The bill would put community mental health centers in a better position to secure federal resources. Right now, there are about 2,000 community mental health centers that serve about 8 million patients annually across the U.S.
For people with mental illnesses seeking services at these clinics, the quality of care is uneven, and the funding stream is restricted mostly to state and local dollars, said Linda Rosenberg, president and CEO of the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare.
"That's created a very uneven playing field" for people with mental illnesses, Rosenberg said.
She and other advocates said the Stabenow-Blunt bill would change that by establishing federal standards for mental health clinics and allowing centers that meet those standards to bill Medicaid for those services, in the same way traditional health centers do now. Mental health centers that receive Medicaid reimbursements now typically receive a less generous, state-set payment than they would under this new proposal.
To win the enhanced federal reimbursements, mental health centers would have to provide more integrated physical and mental health care and expanded counseling for patients and their families, among other services.
"It will significantly broaden our capacity to provide services," said Todd Schaible, president and CEO of Burrell Behavioral Health, a mental health center in Springfield. "This is a very, very critical bill in mental health coming at a very critical time."
Sponsors did not say exactly where they would find the money to pay for the bill, leaving the measure's prospects unclear, particularly in this austere fiscal climate.
But Blunt said he was optimistic.
"We have a moment that works, and we have a model that works," he said. "We're going to bring those two things together" to push the proposal forward.