Politics & Policy

Murphy Bill Is a Welcome Improvement to Mental-Health Policy

(Rafael Ben-ari/Dreamstime)

In the wake of yet another tragic mass shooting, gun controllers have been quick to proffer a catalogue of measures, none of which would have stopped last week’s shooting at Umpqua Community College — nor the murders in Tucson, Ariz., in 2011, nor those in Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn., in 2012. Yet many of those same gun controllers reject as a distraction mental-health-care reforms that could help prevent mass shootings committed by psychotics — and also assist the several million persons whose everyday lives are burdened by schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other serious mental illnesses.

One such proposal is available to Congress right now: Republican representative Tim Murphy’s Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act (HR 2646). Representative Murphy, a Pennsylvania psychologist, has garnered broad, bipartisan support for his bill, which would do much to overhaul our ineffective, oft-corrupt mental-health bureaucracy.

The federal government spends $130 billion annually on mental health — to little effect. This is primarily because the federal government’s mental-health policy is largely driven by the failed Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). The most important part of Murphy’s bill is to eliminate SAMHSA and replace it with an assistant secretary for Mental Health, charged with shifting federal dollars away from useless, often duplicative programs and those that focus on “behavioral wellness” and mild forms of mental illness and toward those that focus on the most seriously ill. One such program is assisted outpatient treatment, which has proven effective in reducing rates of violence, drug and alcohol abuse, incarceration, and repeated hospitalization among the seriously mentally ill. By reducing the use of expensive hospitalization and incarceration, these programs will provide significant savings to the state and federal criminal-justice and health-care systems, while providing families a way to admit dangerously ill kin into psychiatric care without abrogating patients’ legal protections.

EDITORIAL: Congress Is Waking Up on Mental Health

Murphy’s bill will also modestly modify the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act so that family members of people with serious mental illness can finally be involved in the care of their loved ones. The astonishing reach of medical privacy laws — many of which were developed to serve the interests of insurance, rather than health-care providers — will be pruned back to allow family members to know what medications their loved ones have been prescribed, when they are scheduled to see their doctors, and other crucial information when it is needed to protect health, safety, and welfare. The bill upholds HIPAA’s privacy protections — for example, notes from psychotherapy will not be available — while recognizing that patients whose families are involved in treatment normally have better long-term outcomes, and that current privacy strictures put families in untenable, even dangerous situations.

Also, giving families access to necessary patient information is another way of helping to temper the influence of SAMHSA-promoted “patient advocates,” whose activities nowadays often hamper, rather than promote, access to effective treatment for the most seriously ill. The Murphy bill will amend the Protection and Advocacy for Individuals with Mental Illness Program, passed by Congress in 1986, to restore it to its original intent: protecting patients from abuse and neglect.

#share#And the bill will do much more, including increasing access to tele-psychiatry for mental-health patients in underserved areas, advancing early invention programs with proven track records, and extending health IT laws to help mental-health providers and primary-care physicians better coordinate.

The bill is unnecessarily stalled in the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Representative Fred Upton (R., Mich.), known for being conflict-averse, should not shy away from this fight. Every candidate for House leadership has signaled support for Murphy’s bill, 130 representatives from both parties have signed on as cosponsors, and the legislation has widespread grassroots support from the American Psychiatric Association, Mental Illness Policy Org., the National Sheriff’s Association, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and a host of others. Backers have even designated Wednesday, October 7, “National Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Day,” and plan to bombard Representative Upton’s office with calls and social-media messages (#HR2646). The congressman should listen to them.

RELATED: Fixing America’s Mental-Health System

Compared with the range of milder mental illnesses toward which our mental-health efforts have long been focused, serious mental illnesses directly affect a relatively small number of Americans — less than 5 percent of the total population. But the consequences are evident in our prisons and on our streets — as well as in those instances when untreated serious mental illness expresses itself in mass violence. There is no panacea to these problems, but the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act is a strong step in the right direction.

Voice your support for the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act by contacting Representative Upton at 202-225-3761.


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