HELP Committee focuses on access to mental health services

On January 20, 2016, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) heard testimony from four experts in the field of mental health with very different perspectives. The three who had been directly involved with patients all testified, however, that there is a dearth of resources for treatment and that serious needs go unmet.

Penny Blake, R.N., C.C.R.N., an emergency room nurse and Chair of the Advocacy Advisory council of the Emergency Nurses Association, told the committee that people with mental health or substance use conditions comprise about 10 percent of the patients that present to the emergency department at the West Palm Beach hospital where she works. The loud noises and chaotic atmosphere of a busy emergency department can be harmful to a patient who may be hallucinating. Because the hospital does not have a psychiatric ward, patients who are dangerous to themselves or others must be transferred to other hospitals. There are so few beds available that they must be “boarded” in the emergency department. Usually the wait is 12 to 24 hours, but it is not unusual for a patient to wait for four days to be transferred.

The need to isolate and observe patients who may require involuntary commitment also diverts staff from other patients who need care. The emergency room physicians lack the experience and expertise to begin treatment of the psychiatric emergency with appropriate medication. Blake attributed the difficulties in accessing treatment to the insufficiency of treatment providers available and the lack of insurance coverage for psychiatric care.

Brian Hepburn, MD, Executive Director of the National Association of State Mental Health Directors, expressed gratitude for the mental health block grant programs and funding for demonstration projects. For example, he believes that the First Episode of Psychosis program, which now receives a 10 percent set-aside from mental health block grants, will make a significant difference. He noted that treatment of serious mental illness is much more likely to be successful when begun in the early stages of the illness. He asked that Congress modify the Medicaid exclusion of services of institutions for mental disease (IMD) to allow payment for adult stays in IMDs. Hepburn also recommended increasing support for monitoring and enforcement of the laws requiring mental health and addiction parity.

Both Hepburn and William W. Eaton, PhD, Professor in the Department of Mental Health at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, told the committee that patients with mental illness or substance use disorder also are at higher risk for physical illnesses, such as heart attacks, stroke, or diabetes. Eaton also emphasized the lack of research and resources dedicated to mental illness, especially with respect to public health interventions that could prevent or alleviate mental illness.

Pending legislation

Finally, Hakeem Rahim, representing the National Alliance on Mental Illness, put a human face on the problem by describing the experience of living and coping with psychosis. Rahim told the committee that S. 1893, the Mental Health Awareness Act, which was recently passed by the Senate and is now pending in the House, was a good start. However, he urged the committee to support S. 1945, the Mental Health Reform Act, sponsored by committee members Bill Cassidy (R-La) and Christopher Murphy (D-Conn). S. 1945 would create an Assistant Secretary of Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders and expand funding for many training and treatment programs.