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Detroit Free Press - Mental Health Act a Big Step Toward Getting People Help

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Proposed gun-control laws are divisive, evoking strong emotions from proponents and opponents, grabbing headlines and sparking vigorous debate.

Less controversial is the proposed Excellence in Mental Health Act of 2013, which could bring Medicaid-funded mental health services to 1.5 million Americans. The act, co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat, is in response to President Barack Obama's call to action in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., shootings late last year.

We support the passage of this act. Of the roughly 4.8 million Americans who struggled with mood disorders, an estimated one-third don't receive treatment. This bill would take an important step toward bridging this gap.

Provisions of the bill, which was introduced in the Senate last month, may be added as an amendment to gun control legislation that's expected to hit the Senate floor in April, or offered on the floor alongside that bill, according to Stabenow's office.

The mental health bill would create federal standards of service for community mental health centers -- centers that meet the standards would be able to bill Medicaid for services. The new standards include requirements to operate a 24-hour crisis psychiatric service, integration of mental and physical checkups, integrated treatment for mental illness and substance abuse, along with cognitive behavioral therapy and expanded peer support and counseling services for patients and their families.

The bill would also support the expansion of existing centers and construction of new centers, and is expected to cost $1 billion over the next 10 years.

This is especially crucial in Michigan, where the mental health system was first gutted by former Gov. John Engler , who closed three-quarters of the state's psychiatric hospitals between 1987 and 2003. Michigan's 46 Community Mental Health Centers serve about 200,000 people each year. About 500,000 people in Michigan are seriously mentally ill; more than half don't receive publicly funded treatment.

The bill is sponsored by an impressively bipartisan list of lawmakers: Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.; Jack Reed, D-R.I.; Susan Collins, R-Maine,; Barbara Boxer, D-Calif; Marco Rubio R-Fla., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

Stabenow, for one, has worked for improvement of mental health care for years. The bill is widely supported; senators who co-sponsored the act say the Newtown shootings have provided a moment in which it's possible to move forward.

The Newtown shooter, Adam Lanza, is believed to have struggled with mental illness, as have other recent mass shooters like Jared Loughner, who killed six people and wounded 12, including former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, in a 2011 shooting in Tuscon, or James Holmes, who killed 12 and injured 58 in a shooting in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater.

It's notoriously difficult to get even popular legislation passed in Washington; it's crucial that the slim window of cooperation that could see this law passed not close.

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