On Wednesday, January 20th, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, held a hearing on mental health reform on the 114th Congress. The hearing focused primarily on the provisions of the Mental Health Reform Act (S. 1945)– legislation introduced by Committee members Senators Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA). While the Committee did not vote on this legislation, Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) said he wants to “move promptly” to put forward a series of recommendation from a variety of mental health proposals.
Many of the broad themes discussed included increasing access to mental health care in rural areas, addressing the provider shortage and reducing the stigma around mental health. In addition, there was talk about addressing the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) privacy laws. “Touching HIPAA is like touching an electric wire, but maybe that's what we're paid to do sometimes.” said Chairman Alexander. So far there are two competing proposals that would address alleged problems for people who struggle to find out information about a family member under psychiatric care. The proposal from Rep. Tim Murphy would directly amend HIPAA law by providing a new exception to the HIPAA privacy rule. A competing proposal from Doris Matsui (D-CA) would codify the content of a 2014 guidance (PDF) issued by HHS' Office for Civil Rights without amending the HIPAA. It will also promote better understanding of what the privacy law allows—which will help providers in using their discretion in mental health situations.
Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and ranking Democrat Patty Murray of Washington want to use reauthorization of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration as the primary vehicle for mental health bill, which the committee could then add to, said Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.).
The witnesses for this hearing included: Brian Hepburn, National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors; Penelope Blake, Emergency Nurses Association; William Eaton, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; and Hakeen Rahim, Live Breathe.
As a result of the hearing, Chairman Alexander said he is working with the Senate Judiciary committee, which shares jurisdiction on mental health issues, on a larger sweeping comprehensive mental health bill that pulls from a number of competing bills, including one that deals with the opioid epidemic.
AAMFT continues to meet with members and staff of the relevant committees in working to try and include language that would allow MFTs to be reimbursed by Medicare in any legislation that moves forward. The bill, HR 2759, would ensure that 40% of the entire mental health workforce (MFTs and counselors) are no longer excluded from Medicare reimbursement.