HELP Policymakers Introduce Mental Health Legislation

Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and committee member Bill Cassidy (R-La.) have introduced legislation aimed at ensuring that those suffering from mental illness and substance abuse disorders have access to the care they need. The legislation would work to improve coordination between federal agencies and departments that provide mental health services, and to improve accountability and evaluation of mental health programs. It would update block grants for states in an effort to ensure that federal money supports states in providing quality mental health care. The bill would also require that federal mental health programs incorporate the most up-to-date approaches for mental health treatment and require program leadership to include mental health professionals with practical experience. Finally, the legislation would work to improve training for those who care for individuals with mental illness, and promote better enforcement of mental health parity laws. The bill is more narrow in scope than the House’s mental health package, and the author of the House package, Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), has criticized the Senate bill for failing to include more controversial reforms like changes to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) to make information sharing easier. The Senate bill is scheduled for committee markup on March 16. 

Senate Passes Addiction and Recovery Bill, HHS to Award $100 Million to Combat Opioid Abuse

The Senate passed the Comprehensive Addiction Recovery Act (CARA) by a vote of 94-1 last week. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) was the only no vote. He expressed doubt that fighting addiction as opposed to drug trafficking was the best solution to addressing opioid abuse. CARA would offer grants to states, local governments, and nonprofit organizations to expand opioid abuse prevention efforts, increase access to substance abuse treatment programs and medication-assisted treatment, and make overdose-prevention drugs like naloxone more readily available. It includes a provision to allow Medicare to designate a single prescriber for at risk patients. S. 524 would also mandate investigations into heroin distribution and unlawful distribution of prescription opioids. Finally, it would require the creation of a national drug awareness campaign, convening of a task force to consider best practices for opioid prescribing, and expansion of disposal sites for unwanted prescription medication. A hearing on companion legislation in the House has yet to be scheduled. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) also announced last week that it would award $94 million to health centers to help address the prescription drug abuse and opioid epidemic. The money will come from grants under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and be administered by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) and will be distributed to 271 health centers across the U.S. The funding is being administered to improve access to substance abuse services, specifically in underserved areas. The investment will expand access to medication-assisted treatment and provide training and educational materials for prescribing health professionals. It will help treatment centers hire as many as 800 people who could reach up to 124,000 new patients. In related news, a study was released last week indicating that government letters informing providers that they prescribe more painkillers than their peers do not result in a change in prescribing practices. The study examined 1,525 providers prescribing on average 406 percent more Schedule II controlled substances than their peers, matched by state and specialty. Half of the group were randomly chosen to receive letters from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) informing them of how much more they were prescribing in relation to their peers. After 90 days, there was no significant difference in prescribing patterns between the group that received the letter and the group that did not.

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