United States Senate Approves Landmark Mental Health Bill As Part Of 21st Century Cures Act
The US Senate passed the first major mental health legislation in nearly a decade, sending the 21st Century Cures Act to President Barack Obama, who has promised to sign it.
The Senate voted 94-5 to approve the act, which sailed through the House of Representatives the week before. Although the 21st Century Cures Act has been championed as a way to speed up drug development, it also includes provisions aimed at improving mental health care for millions of Americans and fighting the opioid epidemic.
Mental health advocates have described it as the most significant piece of mental health legislation since the 2008 law requiring equal insurance coverage for mental and physical health.
Tackling the opioid crisis
Emphasis on science, early interventions
The new legislation places a strong emphasis on science, pushing federal agencies to fund only programs that are backed by solid research and to collect data on whether patients are actually helped. The bill strengthens laws mandating parity for mental and physical health care and includes grants to increase the number of psychologists and psychiatrists, who are in short supply across the country.
The bill also pushes states to provide early intervention for psychosis, a treatment program that has been hailed as one of the most promising mental health developments in decades.
The bill generally requires states to use at least 10% of their mental health block grants on early intervention for psychosis, using a model called coordinated specialty care, which provides a team of specialists to provide psychotherapy, medication, education and support for patients’ families, as well as services to help young people stay in school or their jobs.
Research from the National Institutes of Health shows that people who receive this kind of care
- Stay in treatment longer;
- Have greater improvement in their symptoms, personal relationships and quality of life; and
- Are more involved in work or school compared to people who receive standard care.
Assertive community treatment
The bill also sets up a $5 million grant program to provide assertive community treatment, one of the most successful strategies for helping people with serious mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia. Like the early intervention program, assertive community treatment provides a team of professionals that is on call 24 hours a day. The bill also expands a grant program for assisted outpatient treatment, which provides court-ordered care for people with serious mental illness who might otherwise not seek help.
Although the bill authorizes these grants, a future Congress would have to approve funding for the programs.
While funding treatments for mental illness is expensive, “it’s more expensive to ignore it,” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, who co-sponsored mental health legislation in the House that folded into the 21st Century Cures Act.
Other sections of the bill give communities more flexibility in how they use federal grants. For example, communities could use community policing grants to train law enforcement officers to deal with patients in the midst of a psychiatric crisis. Another provision would require the U.S. attorney general to create at least one drug and mental health court pilot program, which would aim to help people with mental illness or drug addiction receive treatment, rather than jail time, after committing minor offenses.
The legislation will help “those suffering from mental illness in the criminal justice system can begin to recover and get the help they need instead of just getting sicker and sicker,” Cornyn said. “This bill also encourages the creation of crisis intervention teams, so that our law enforcement officers and first responders can know how to deescalate dangerous confrontations. This is about finding ways to help the mentally ill individual get help while keeping the community safe at the same time.”
Better inter-agency coordination
The bill also aims to better coordinate mental health care. Although eight federal agencies today fund 112 programs that provide mental health care, these agencies rarely coordinate their efforts to make sure patients get the help they need and to avoid duplicating services.
The bill would make structural changes to the way federal agencies provide mental health services.
- A new committee would link leaders of key agencies involved in mental health care, such as the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Justice and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, or SAMHSA.
- A new position — the assistant secretary for Mental Health and Substance Use — would oversee SAMHSA and disseminate the most successful approaches to treating mental illness.
- An advisory board, the National Mental Health and Substance Use Policy Laboratory, would also analyze treatments and services to help decide which ones should be expanded.