Just as the shimmering sunlight of summer is quickly waning away, so too is the stellar opportunity we have to pass national mental health reform legislation this year. We all hoped against hope that both Houses of the Congress would take necessary action on this issue before they departed early in July for an extended Summer Recess. Unfortunately, that did not happen.
Now, we again are organizing our advocacy efforts to prepare for the return of the Congress on September 6.Very likely, this will be the last chance we have in the 114th Congress to accomplish this exceptionally important, eminently achievable reform goal. Repeat: the last chance!
Why is mental health reform legislation so important?
One only needs to sojourn a very short time in the mental health field to realize that we desperately need national reform legislation. Such legislation will provide essential financial resources to a field starved for resources long before the Great Recession. It also will help us move the integrated care agenda in a much more productive manner, and it will begin to address our growing human resource crisis. It is not a panacea, but it is an essential first step.
What must be done now?
The full Senate must pass the Mental Health Reform Act of 2016. This bill was passed easily in March by the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, under the leadership of Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-Wash.). Now, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-N.V.) need to add this bill to the calendar of the full Senate for a vote. The Senate debate on this bill must be managed carefully. Amendments on gun ownership, their purchase limitations, and controls have no place in this debate, and should be argued in a separate bill.
What is the subsequent step?
Prior to departing for its Summer Recess, the House passed the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act of 2015 by a very large margin. Thanks to the efforts of Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Ranking Member Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) of the Energy and Commerce Committee (ECC), most problematic features of the original bill were removed by the Committee leadership before the full House vote. Now, the House is ready to negotiate with the Senate.
Once the full Senate votes on the Mental Health Reform Act of 2016, then Senator McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) must quickly appoint Senate and House Conferees who will reconcile the differences between the two bills. Only after the Conferees have met and agreed, and both the full Senate and full House have voted to accept the conferees’ report can the final bill be sent to the president for signature.
Tall order after September 6? Not at all, if the process can be kept on track and conducted in a timely manner.
What will I do?
I will continue to be as active as possible in several national coalitions that are building support for immediate action by the Senate upon its return. I also will ask the members of NACBHDD and NARMH and you to become engaged and support the reform legislation. This effort will focus upon intensive outreach to Senators McConnell and Reid.
Kentucky and Nevada have the same glaring needs for mental health reform as do the rest of us. This key point will be emphasized in interactions with Senators McConnell and Reid.