A Pennsylvania congressman is pushing a bill to drastically change the federal government’s $130 billion mental-health care system.
At the same time, Florida lawmakers and mental-health advocates are set to contemplate their own overhaul of the state’s system during a Jacksonville conference this week.
U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., said he read the Times-Union’s special report titled “Mental Health Merry-Go-Round” that detailed Florida’s services for people suffering mental-health issues.
The report highlights a Jacksonville family and the roadblocks family members encountered trying to get help for 29-year-old Sean Harriford before he was charged with killing his mother last October.
Murphy said each issue faced by the Harrifords echoed other stories he hears across the country. He said others who experience similar difficulties should reach out and make their stories known.
“For many years, these families have suffered in silence. We want them to speak up,” Murphy said. “Tell your members of Congress in the House and the Senate what it [the mental-health system] is like.”
At the same time Murphy tries to mount support for his bill, Jacksonville hosts the Florida Mental Health Summit on Tuesday and Wednesday at the downtown Hyatt Regency where state Reps. Charles McBurney, R-Jacksonville, and Kathleen Peters, R-St. Petersburg, will meet with dozens of mental-health professionals to discuss Florida’s progress on mental-health reform.
Denise Marzullo, an organizer of the event, said the goal of the summit is to come up with a plan for 2016. “The summit will be an opportune time for people all across the state of Florida who are concerned about mental illness to join together and prioritize the needs for our community,” she said. “These mental health legislative priorities will be distributed to all elected officials in order to facilitate true system transformation in 2016.”
McBurney said he plans to file a bill that failed last year after a dispute between the House and Senate about Medicaid funding. His bill last year called for standardization of mental-health courts to provide consistency throughout the counties.
McBurney called it critical that his bill pass next year to make a dent in the systematic problems in mental health services. “This is bipartisan legislation, and it’s a huge problem that both sides are working to address,” he said.
However, fundamental flaws at the federal level need to be ironed out as well.
A subcommittee Murphy chairs began an examination into the nation’s mental-health services after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting by a deranged teen gunman in December 2013. Twenty children and six adults died before the killer turned his weapon upon himself.
The subcommittee found a severe shortage of psychiatrists, hospital beds and oversight on how the federal government provides services for mental-health care.
Some of the findings included:
■ For every 2,000 children with a mental-health disorder, there’s only one psychiatrist available.
■ The three largest mental health “hospitals” in the country are jails or prisons.
■ There’s a nationwide shortage of nearly 100,000 hospital beds.
“The federal government is a big part of the reason why they [the severely mentally ill] aren’t getting treatment,” Murphy said. “We went through this and found a lot of policies that need to be changed.”
There are 112 different government programs but “coordination for programs supporting individuals with serious mental illness is lacking,” and “agencies do not collect data on how mental health dollars are spent — let alone whether those dollars are being spent effectively.”
He said in a recent 20,000-word report, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration — the main federal agency tasked with managing the nation’s mental health system — didn’t use the words schizophrenia or bipolar once.
“We know they have been ignoring these serious mental-health issues,” Murphy said.
Last year, Murphy introduced The Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act, which gained bipartisan support and about 100 co-sponsors in the U.S. House of Representatives. However, the bill didn’t make it to the floor for a vote.
Murphy reintroduced the bill in June and it has gained 105 co-sponsors in the past eight weeks, including seven Florida representatives.
Currently, no single person at the substance abuse administration is a psychiatrist or a licensed psychologist, Murphy said. The first part of the bill would reorganize and rename the administration and also would require the leader of that agency to have a mental-health background. He said the administration has provided money for years to agencies that focus on “health and wellness” and not psychiatry to treat mental illness, pointing to programs that direct depressed people in Boston to call a hotline when there’s too much snow. He called that absurd.
“We want the predominant amount of money to go to people identified at risk and who have symptoms,” he said.
The bill also makes exceptions into a federal health-care privacy law that often prevents family members of severely mentally ill people from obtaining medical information. The exception would allow known caregivers access to the next appointment and a list of medications their loved one is taking. Family members will still be barred from viewing therapy notes or other treatment information, he said.
Murphy said the bill also does away with the Medicaid hospital bed cap that was put in place to get rid of the old system of large, state-run asylums. Currently, a psych unit is not allowed more than 16 beds.
Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis would also change a Medicaid law that prevents a recipient from seeing two doctors in the same day.
The bill also calls for detailed breakdown of each state’s spending on mental health. The most controversial change in law would lower criteria for assisted outpatient treatment.
That type of treatment would be ordered by a judge to someone who has a violent past and is already in the criminal justice system.
Some mental-health advocates believe this is forced treatment and it takes away rights guaranteed by the Constitution.
Murphy said this type of treatment is necessary for a extremely small population of people suffering mental health disorders.
“When someone talks about taking their rights away, I say this, ‘There’s other people’s rights we have to consider here. There’s the right of the mentally ill to get well and get treatment,’ ” he said. “ … Mental illness is not a choice, it’s not an attitude, it’s not a difference of opinion. It’s a real problem and we have to address it with real solutions.”