Congress recently reminded a skeptical public that Washington, D.C., is not just a settlement built on swampland. The nation’s capital is also capable, albeit too infrequently, of addressing some of the nation’s biggest problems.
The U.S. Senate sent to President Obama’s desk a sprawling, bipartisan bill that could significantly help millions of Americans suffering from mental illness and substance abuse. It includes “some of the biggest pieces of federal legislation in decades” on mental health reform, said Jim Vollendroff, director of King County’s mental health and drug-treatment programs.
The bill, called the 21st Century Cures Act, is a big win for Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who strengthened her already impressive record of bipartisan lawmaking. “I hear so much from patients and families waiting and hoping for new cures and treatments in Washington,” Murray said on the Senate floor.
Murray prioritized expanded funding for National Institutes of Health research as part of Vice President Joe Biden’s cancer “moonshot” initiative. The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle should be a major beneficiary.
The legislation should help relieve pressure on Washington’s overburdened mental health system, and it will add $1 billion in new funding nationwide over the next two years to address the scourge of opiate addiction.
In addition to the money, the legislation refocuses sprawling federal mental health programs on evidence-based prevention. At King County’s Valley Cities center, youth who have had their first psychotic break are treated by a interdisciplinary team.
That approach has shown to keep patients in treatment longer and to improve their symptoms, saving more than $15,000 per patient. This bill encourages much more of that approach.
It cuts federal red tape that limited Department of Justice funding for mental health treatment to people already in jail. “You don’t want to incentivize people to get arrested in order to get treatment,” said John Snook, executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center, a national mental health advocate.
The bill will help pay for Washington’s new but unfunded Assisted Outpatient Treatment program, which mandates intensive treatment for people with the most severe and persistent mental illness, and for mobile, community-based treatment teams.
Like most of what emerges from Washington, D.C., this legislation shunts aside some important reforms.
It does not fundamentally change federal health-care-privacy laws that put artificial barriers between families of people with mental illness and treatment providers. It does not eliminate a wrongheaded, decades-old ban on federal funding for larger mental health hospitals. And it doesn’t do enough to control the rising costs of pharmaceutical drugs.
The House passed the same bill in late November, after the House’s only practicing psychologist, Rep. Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania, spent years studying flaws in the nation’s mental health system. Obama has said he will sign it.
For now, at least, Congress did something fundamentally good for the legion of Americans wanting far more from its mental health and drug-treatment safety net.