WNPR

Sen. Murphy's Mental Health Reform Bill Passes Senate

Dec 8, 2016

A bipartisan mental health reform bill co-authored by Democratic Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy and Republican Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy passed the Senate on Wednesday. It passed the House last week.

The bill is being called the first major mental health care and substance abuse legislation in decades. In addition to mental health reforms, it includes $1 billion in emergency funding to address the opioid and heroin crisis.

WNPR spoke with Murphy, who explained that resources to support mental health reform will come through the private insurance sector. The change will allow access to care for millions of people who have previously been denied treatment.

Sen. Chris Murphy: This bill is a major reform of our mental health parity laws, which right now require insurance companies to say in their statement of benefits that you get equal mental health coverage as you do for physical health. But they’re actually not reimbursing. They’re putting up red tape and bureaucracy in front of people with mental illness who try to get reimbursement for care.

This bill says that if you’re putting that red tape up in front of beneficiaries, then that’s in violation of the federal parity law. So this bill will result in hundreds of millions of dollars in new care being authorized by insurance companies for mental illness.

WNPR's Diane Orson: When you spoke on the floor a few days ago, you said that as Americans, we’ve patted ourselves on the back applauding the closure of mental institutions in the U.S. -- but we’ve gone ahead and recreated them all over again in prisons. How does this bill address that?

We have essentially criminalized mental illness. All the people that came out of those institutions didn’t get the care that we said they were going to get in the community -- in outpatient settings. And they ended up going out on the streets, sometimes committing crimes, and then being warehoused in our prisons.

This bill has some major reforms to the criminal justice system. It incentivizes states to do a lot of the things that, frankly, Connecticut’s done -- whereby you can take people who are mentally ill who have committed crimes and instead of putting them into prison, channel them into treatment first [and] have a higher bar for locking up people with mental illness. Try to get them treatment as your first option.

This bill has a major set of criminal justice reforms that were authored by Republicans, frankly, that will start to move people out of prisons and into treatment, or at least give states the incentive to do that.

It is a bipartisan measure and I’m wondering how -- in this highly charged and polarized climate -- that happened?

I can identify two or three moments where this thing was almost going to fall apart. Republicans thought that the insurance provisions were too strong. There was a moment where a lot of Republicans wanted to put gun language into the bill that we objected to. Democrats, some of them, were upset that there wasn’t more Medicare and Medicaid funding. So there were lots of moments where we could walk away.

Despite the very well-known dysfunction in Washington, there are more moments than you think when the two parties put politics aside and do something really important: A billion dollars in new treatment money for people suffering from heroin addiction; a law to force insurers to cover more mental illness, and lots of Republicans and Democrats voting for it.

This is a meaningful achievement and maybe it means that even in the Trump administration, Democrats and Republicans can find different ways to do things together that are good.