In an address to parents and families of the Sandy Hook shootings that took place in Newtown, Conn. almost a year ago, Vice President Joe Biden announced two initiatives, from the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture, that offer $100 million in resources to improve access to mental health services.
The HHS initiative will allocate $50 million in Affordable Care Act funds that may be used by the nation’s safety-net Community Health Centers (CHCs) to establish or expand mental health or substance abuse treatment services. The administration estimates that about 200 CHCs nationwide will be able to employ these Affordable Care Act funds to hire new mental health and substance use disorder professionals, add mental health and substance use disorder services, or employ team-based models that integrate both primary care and and behavioral health professionals to improve patient care.
The USDA initiative establishes a departmental goal to invest $50 million in Community Facilities direct loan program funds to help rural communities finance the construction, expansion, or equipment needs of new or existing rural mental health facilities. In 2013, this USDA program provided approximately $650 million annually to rural health facilities of all types, from acute care hospitals and clinics to group, nursing, and rehabilitation facilities.
Despite these announcements, which were cheered by behavioral health advocates, key elements of the Administration’s post-Sandy Hook commitment still await action. Among these is the bipartisan Mental Health Awareness and Improvement Act (S. 689), which would reauthorize and expand federal funding funds to improve the awareness, prevention, and early diagnosis of mental illnesses, notably through expanded programs for teachers and school-aged children.
Although the Mental Health Awareness Act had overwhelming Senate support it was later attached as an amendment to S. 649, the Safe Communities, Safe Schools Act of 2013. This measure sought to establish a national background-check system for gun purchases. The controversy that overwhelmed that piece of legislation in the Senate put the Mental Health Awareness Act into legislative “limbo,” where it remains today.