By now, you most likely have heard the news that the House Energy and Commerce Committee unanimously approved the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act of 2015 (H.R 2646). Amid the cheers among national mental health advocacy groups and members of Congress, I find myself bewildered at the apparent willingness to overlook the many critical flaws in this bill. Have we come to the place where we choose to settle for a bill that is so vacuous and watered down as to be relatively meaningless? My hope is that as this bill and the accompanying bill in the Senate move forward, advocates and members of Congress will grow a spine and call out the more egregious aspects of both bills so that we can hopefully end up with a final bill that means something.
HR 2646 Attempts to Address a Management Issue Through Legislation
Almost a year ago to the day, I wrote:
For the past two years, there has been a constant drumbeat from members of Representative Murphy’s committee that the Administrator of SAMHSA had been a major obstacle to getting committee questions answered about how SAMHSA approaches its responsibilities...
Frustrated as they might be, Congress can’t “fire” Administrator Hyde, as the separation of powers between the executive branch and the legislative branch dictates that while Congress has the authority to investigate and allocate funds, the power to replace senior leadership is the purview of the Executive Branch. However, there is nothing to stop Congress from abolishing the position of the SAMHSA Administrator. No position, no Hyde.
Fast forward to today and former Administrator Hyde is gone and the recommendation to replace the SAMHSA Administrator with an Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Abuse remains. The question we need to ask ourselves as advocates, and then ask our elected officials, Is this the most prudent way to deal with a management issue? Do we need an “extreme makeover” because we are frustrated with the SAMHSA Administrator? Is this the way Congress should address frustration with Executive Branch management issues in the future? This is a dangerous precedent to set. I encourage you to read a post I wrote last year that provides some historical context for the dangerous folly behind this proposed action:
Empty Promise to Providers
Adding to the significant lack of awareness in this bill of what is needed to achieve meaningful mental health reform is the stripping of the few key elements of earlier versions of the bill that could potentially make a difference at the local level, most notably the provisions based on the Excellence in Mental Health Act and the Mental Health First Aid Act. Also, once again, parity took a back seat as Rep. Joe Kennedy's (D-MA) amendment based on his parity enforcement legislation, the Behavioral Health Coverage Transparency Act (H.R. 4276), was withdrawn, as was Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM) amendment based on the Mental Health in Schools Act (S. 1588/H.R. 1211).
It is interesting to note that The National Council for Behavioral Health has been a primary force in encouraging members of Congress to include provisions in the Excellence in Mental Health Act and the Mental Health First Aid Act. The Council's membership is comprised of organizations who provide the services that will ultimately make a difference with whatever mental health legislation is passed. Maybe the Council ought to be listened to just a bit more when it comes to understanding the realities of implementation.
Empty Promise to Families
I continue to be haunted by the speeches that politicians make, preying on the horror and tragedies faced by so many families in the wake of the continued onslaught of public massacres in America. Every time I read a news account of a politician telling families who have suffered unimaginable loss that HR 2646 will prevent a Columbine, a Sandy Hook, or an Orlando, my stomach turns. And so should yours.
Statement by Congressman Tim Murphy during the markup of HR 2646
“For those children and families, we made a promise: we’re going to fix the broken mental health system. For those innocent people in a movie theatre in Aurora, the grocery store in Tucson, wherever the perpetrator was someone with severe mental illness, for victims and their families we made a promise to deliver treatment before tragedy.”
~ Representative Tim Murphy, PA ~
Over the past few years, the Children's Mental Health Network has featured posts by family members who are in staunch support of HR 2646. Wonderful advocates like Liza Long (The Anarchist Soccer Mom) and Dottie Pacharis, speak from the perspective of parents who have experienced tragedies that none of us would want, or I could even begin to imagine. We owe it to the Dotties and Liza's across America to not passively sit by and support a bill just because it is "better than nothing." Speak your mind, Network faithful. Now is not a time for celebration. Now is a time for doubling down and holding politicians feet to the fire. Empty promises help no one.