By Peter Sullivan
February 2, 2016
A group of House Democrats on Tuesday introduced their own mental health reform bill as they call for changes to a Republican-led measure working its way through the chamber.
The group of six Democrats is led by Rep. Gene Green (Texas), the top Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Health subcommittee. That committee is currently working on a mental health bill from Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), which Republican leadership has billed as the party’s response to mass shootings.
The Democratic bill casts aside several of the areas of Murphy’s bill to which Democrats have objected. It does not include financial incentives to states to reward assisted outpatient treatment laws, which allow judges to mandate treatment for patients with serious mental illness.
It also makes less drastic changes to a health privacy law known as HIPAA, which Murphy argues will help give caregivers needed information about the mentally ill but that Democrats have said would hurt patient privacy.
Democrats have also argued that Murphy’s bill would in effect gut the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and could end up cutting funding for substance abuse.
The Democratic bill, by contrast, includes a range of grants to help fight the epidemic of abuse of opioids.
Green said in a statement that the Democratic bill “represents our best ideas, and we are eager to kick start the discussion and move the process forward toward enacting a strong, comprehensive and transformative law."
The bill also includes a range of other grant programs on mental illness and changes to ease some limits on Medicare and Medicaid paying for mental healthcare.
The other sponsors, all Democrats, are Reps. Diana DeGette (Colo.), Doris Matsui (Calif.), Paul Tonko (N.Y.), David Loebsack (Iowa) and Joseph Kennedy (Mass.).
"My goal remains the same: fixing the broken system that has failed those with serious mental illness," Murphy said in a statement in response to the Democratic bill. "I welcome all ideas to meet the goal of helping families in mental health crisis."
It remains unclear how much Democrats on the Energy and Commerce Committee will be able to influence Murphy’s bill. Republican committee leaders point to the months of meetings they have had to try to accommodate Democratic concerns, but Democrats say no real changes to the bill ever actually occur and accuse Murphy of being unwilling to compromise.
Republicans also have to work out some objections within their own party, including concerns over the bill’s cost, while they look to move forward to a markup of the Murphy bill in the full committee. The Murphy bill does have 49 Democratic cosponsors, most of whom are not on the Energy and Commerce committee.