Lawmakers Push To Reform Mental Health System

Two congressional lawmakers from Pennsylvania hope their new legislation will greatly enhance care for the nation’s mentally ill.

“It’s time to treat mental illness as an illness, not as a crime,” said Congressman Tim Murphy, R-18, in a conference call Wednesday. A psychologist by training, Murphy, from Upper St. Clair, Allegheny County, has sponsored the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act, designed to reform the country’s mental health care system.

Congressman Mike Fitzpatrick, R-8, Middletown, co-sponsored the legislation, saying there is mounting concern over how effectively the mentally ill are being treated.

“The stark reality is that millions of Americans who suffer from mental illness are going without treatment, and families are struggling to find care for loved ones,” Fitzpatrick said during the 45-minute discussion. “This should be a priority for all of us in the U.S. Capitol.”

House Bill 3717 is intended to “fix the nation’s broken mental health system,” said Murphy, “by focusing programs and resources on psychiatric care for patients and families in need of services.”

The bill has 100 co-sponsors, said Fitzpatrick.

Among the numerous components of the comprehensive overhaul is a refining of the privacy act known as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA. Under Murphy’s bill, doctors and mental health professionals would have greater flexibility to share critical information with parents and caregivers about a loved one who is in crisis.

“HIPAA laws are unclear and often misunderstood,” said Murphy. Noting that each case should be judged on its own merit, the congressman said, rather than protecting one’s privacy, HIPAA can sometimes interfere with care.

Furthermore, Murphy said, Pennsylvania must address its legal “age of majority,” which allows people as young as 14 to refuse treatment. “They are not in a position to make a decision,” he added.

“We don’t do this with any other form of illness,” the congressman noted.

Bucks County Commissioner Diane Marseglia, who lost a daughter to suicide, has been an advocate for mental health services. She, along with members of the Bucks County Suicide Task Force, joined the call Wednesday to offer support for the legislation.

“A law like this is a unique opportunity for us,” said Marseglia.

Murphy said the nation lacks both inpatient and outpatient treatment options. Seven decades ago, he said, the country was half the size it is today. However, in 1944, the country had 600,000 inpatient psychiatric beds. Today, said the congressman, there are 40,000.

His legislation looks to increase the number of beds for the most critically ill patients.

Additionally, the bill promotes alternatives to long-term inpatient care, with programs such as “assisted outpatient treatment.” Under these, a judge, with adequate evidence, has the authority to order the mentally ill to stay in treatment. The courts too would have an obligation to “follow up and follow through.”

Already in place in 45 states, Murphy said, AOT programs have proven successful in keeping the mentally ill out of prisons, off the streets and protected from violence.

Modeled on a Massachusetts program, the bill outlines a telepsychiatry link, allowing pediatricians and primary care physicians to consult with psychiatrists and psychologists via phone and computer when a patient has limited access to mental health professionals.

While the stigma of mental illness has eased over the years, it still exists, said Murphy. “Mental illness should not be a source of shame or derision.”

The congressman called on his colleagues to address the national problem. “Congress has to wake up and see this is real … this is a crisis and it needs to be treated as such.”

Freda Savana:215-345-3061;; Twitter:@fredasavana