Americans rarely witness common-sense, taxpayer-friendly, good-government legislation introduced in Congress -- and with bipartisan support. The Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act qualifies on all counts.
Introduced by Pennsylvania Rep. Tim Murphy and cosponsored by Manatee-Sarasota Rep. Vern Buchanan, the two Republicans held court in the region to discuss the issue at various meetings, including a town hall at New College and a discussion with this Editorial Board on Tuesday.
The United States has fallen into a mental health care crisis with the nation's shortcomings evident for years.
Murphy, a practicing psychologist, launched a close examination of the country's mental health system in January 2013 as a member of a House committee. That investigation uncovered a "chaotic patchwork of antiquated programs and ineffective policies across numerous agencies."
Almost 23 million Americans suffer a severe mental illness, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression, yet millions lack medical treatment. Many wind up homeless or incarcerated, but emergency rooms, jails and prisons are ill equipped to treat the mentally ill and the costs are far higher than psychiatric care.
This comprehensive legislation would overhaul the system by shifting priorities and resources to focus on providing effective psychiatric care. Federal dollars would be aligned to programs proven to be successful in patient outcomes and societal savings. Contractors and agencies would be required to prove the value of the programs with hard data in order to retain tax money.
Taxpayers will appreciate the act's goal of placing federal spending under a microscope of accountability without adding new costs. The federal government pours $125 billion annually into mental health programs yet requires little evidence of success.
Private enterprise could not survive without proving to customers and clients that its products and services are worthwhile, yet the public sector all too often operates without the checks and balances that demonstrate value.
The legislation also eases the restrictions imposed under Medicare and Medicaid in order to rebuild the nation's crumbling infrastructure.
Seventy years ago, the county had 600,000 inpatient psychiatric beds; today, the number stands at less than 40,000 -- a shameful indictment of society's shortsightedness.
The cost of mental illness is now somewhat hidden among the bills due from hospital ERs and prisons -- which we all end up paying one way or another.
That decline in beds is also an indication of the social stigma that surrounds mental illness. One of the act's provisions directs the Department of Education to work with mental health stakeholders to implement a national campaign designed to reduce that stigma among students.
One key element aims to increase the number of assisted outpatient programs that allow courts to compel certain mentally ill patients — those with a record of arrests and hospitalizations and whose conditions will worsen — to resume treatment programs. Such non-compliant patients quit their medications. Current privacy law restricts families from helping these individuals back into treatment.
One such program in New York cut incarcerations, homelessness and psychiatric hospitalizations quite dramatically — by 74 percent and higher. Another new model shows the success of early intervention that includes low-dose medication and support services for individuals at risk of developing full-blown schizophrenia, thus reducing suicide rates and helping patients become functional.
The legislation would also break down a major block to parents and caregivers, allowing mental health professionals to discuss their loved one’s case should the mental illness prevent a person from making an informed decision about the need for treatment. That has met political opposition, but empowering families is vital to treatment.
In addition, contractors are resisting the requirement for metrics to prove program value.
Florida's large congressional delegation is one of the keys to passage of The Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act. Since Buchanan chairs the delegation, his support for the legislation is vital.
Murphy's uncompromising position -- he refuses to negotiate a watered-down bill -- is admirable. The sweeping measure is an attempt to repair the nation’s broken mental health care system, minimized for far too long. Congress should strongly consider passage and begin to place patients and families first and fend off the political opposition.