Weekly Column by Lamar Alexander: Addressing the Mental Health Crisis

Posted on March 29, 2016

Sixty percent of adults and half of adolescents with a mental illness are not receiving the services they need. That is why many of us on both sides of the political aisle believe there is a mental health crisis and why we are focused on finding ways to address it.

Earlier this month the Senate health committee, which I chair, passed five pieces of legislation to address this crisis – the broadest of which is the Mental Health Reform Act. I cosponsored this legislation with Sens. Murray, Cassidy, and Murphy. This bipartisan consensus will improve mental health services in Tennessee and across the country.

This legislation first does this by recognizing that states have the primary responsibility for providing mental health services. It helps to ensure that federal dollars support states in providing quality mental health services. It maintains flexibility to states by updating the block grants and simplifying the application process.

Second, the bill strengthens the leadership at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and ensures that the agency is getting input from medical experts with real world experience in mental health.

Finally the bill takes steps to require health insurance companies to cover mental health needs comparable to how they cover other health needs.

The other four pieces of legislation we passed this month related to mental health deal with drug addiction. I cosponsored a bill to help states develop plans for the care of babies born to drug-addicted parents. We passed bills to prevent opioid overdose, to help people have access to drugs that help them kick their addiction to prescription drugs, and provide grants to help states track prescriptions of commonly abused drugs, so people with addiction can’t “doctor-shop.”

These bills are now ready for consideration by the full Senate and I hope we have a vote soon on this important legislation.

But there’s a lot more than that going on in the United States Senate on these difficult issues.

 

Earlier this month, the Senate passed by a vote of 94 to 1 additional legislation to combat the growing heroin and prescription drug epidemic.

The Senate has also passed the Mental Health Awareness and Improvement Act, which Senator Murray and I introduced to continue and improve programs that help states and local communities prevent suicide, help children recover from traumatic events, help teachers recognize the signs and symptoms of mental illness, and assess barriers to integrating behavioral health and primary care.   

Senator Blunt, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Health Subcommittee, sponsored a bill that became law to allow states to create community mental health centers that function like urgent care centers and clinics but for mental health issues. Eight states have been approved to participate in this program and Senator Blunt is working to expand that to 24 states.

Senator Cornyn has a proposal in the Judiciary Committee to help individuals with mental illness who come in contact with the criminal justice system.

Senator Murphy has been looking at a way to use Medicaid dollars to be used for care at certain in-patient mental health facilities where they can’t be used today. 

The full Senate and our health committee have been active on ways to address the mental health crisis that effects so many Tennesseans and we will continue our focus on helping patients and individuals with mental illness.

###