Move legislation to improve mental health services

Set aside for a moment the drama currently going on at Western State Hospital, which is plagued by critical staff shortages and in danger of losing as much as $64 million a year in federal funding.

Western State is just a small piece of a larger, national failure to provide adequate mental health services. The symptoms of that failure include hordes of homeless people camped on city streets and beneath freeway overpasses, jails crowded with the mentally ill and an increasing number of mass shootings by unstable individuals.

While progress on tougher gun restrictions is taking place at the state and local level — Washington’s universal gun-check initiative that took effect last year is an example — nothing is happening at the national level. Republicans have argued that guns aren’t the problem; instead, more mental health intervention is needed to identify and help potentially dangerous people.

That thinking is helping fuel bipartisan efforts in Congress to address key roadblocks families and care providers say impede their ability to help the mentally ill. If those efforts are successful, it would be the first real mental health reform in Congress in decades.

In the House, child psychologist Tim Murphy, R-Pennsylvania, is pushing legislation called the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act, a response to the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Subsequent shootings — including those in Charleston, South Carolina, and Roseburg, Oregon — have provided yet more impetus for action.

Murphy’s bill made it out of a House committee Wednesday. A Senate companion bill, considered the weaker of the two, probably won’t be considered until early 2016.

Among the more welcome features of both bills is that mental health providers would be allowed to give family members more information about a loved one’s condition and treatment so that they could intervene. Today, federal privacy rules often keep family members in the dark even when they’re providing financial support and health insurance.

Both bills also would lower barriers for Medicaid funding of mental health treatment. One rule that would be removed blocks patients from receiving mental and physical health care treatment on the same day. In addition, more psychiatric beds would be funded.

Murphy’s bill would make it easier for hospitals to be reimbursed and offer financial incentives for states to mandate care for those with severe mental illness.

Reconciling the Senate bill with the stronger House bill — and identifying sources of funding for expanded Medicare coverage — will be big challenges for lawmakers. But they can’t afford to pass up the opportunity to address this critical public health crisis.