Perhaps Congress will address mental health care

Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, in green, and other congressional Democrats cut a cake to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Medicare and Medicaid in Washington last week.
Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, in green, and other congressional Democrats cut a cake to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Medicare and Medicaid in Washington last week. AP

John Russell Houser, a man with a long history of mental illness, shot to death two people and wounded nine others at a movie theater last month in Louisiana.

In Colorado, a jury is deciding whether James Holmes, who had been hospitalized because of suicide attempts, should be executed for killing 12 people in a movie theater in 2012.

We could go on: Jared Loughner, Adam Lanza, Elliott Rodger. In 2015 alone, the first 204 days of 2015 saw 204 mass shootings. Not all were committed by severely mentally ill people, but no one in their right mind commits a mass shooting. The statistic underscores not only the proliferation of guns, but also the gaping holes in the mental health care safety net.

“Mental illness can strike like cancer, without regard to your background, without regard to your status in life, without regard to how intelligent you are. And when James Holmes was born, he had this psychotic mental illness in his blood,” Holmes’ attorney, Tamara Brady, told jurors.

Slowly, California and some of this state’s municipalities are confronting the problem by spending more and insisting that severely mentally ill people receive care. Congress won’t confront gun violence, but mental health may be on its radar.

In July, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., and New Jersey Rep. Frank Pallone, the senior Democrat on the committee, agreed to focus on the disjointed and dysfunctional mental health care system. Energy and Commerce has jurisdiction over the issue.

Upton told the National Journal that he and Pallone simultaneously had the same idea: “I said, ‘I want to talk to you a little bit about mental health and what I want to do with it, and work with you.’ … He said, ‘That’s exactly what I was coming over here to talk to you about.’”

It’s a meeting of the minds that Congress should build on. This past week, members celebrated the 50-year anniversary of the creation of Medicare. Earlier this summer, Democrats rejoiced when the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the Affordable Care Act. Now, Congress should turn their attention to people with diseases of the brain and bring the mental health care system into the 21st century. It could be a historic step.

Rep. Tim Murphy, a Pennsylvania Republican, wants to overhaul the federal system in several ways, including altering antiquated rules that have the perverse effect of denying payment for hospitalization of the most seriously ill people. He also seeks to coordinate the many agencies involved, and give states incentives to care for severely mentally ill people in their homes.

For this year’s version of his bill, HR 2646, Murphy has the support of 26 Democrats, including Rep. Ami Bera of Elk Grove, and 76 Republicans, among them Jeff Denham of Turlock and Doug LaMalfa of Richvale. That’s good but not enough. “We’d love to have more Californians,” Murphy told a Sacramento Bee editorial board member. “You have a huge homeless population.”

Only 11 of the 53-member California delegation have joined as co-sponsors of Murphy’s bill.

Some congressional leaders are trying to find bipartisan agreement on mental health care legislation. Californians ought to play an important role.

Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, has offered legislation to address one part of Murphy’s bill, patient privacy provisions in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996. Health care providers refuse to provide any information about severely mentally ill people to those who care most about them, immediate family members. Many providers won’t listen when parents or siblings try to impart information that might be helpful, believing the act forbids contact with relatives.

Murphy contends privacy protections must be loosened. Matsui says the law provides sufficient flexibility but that mental health care providers need to be taught that it’s not overly rigid.

Murphy, a psychologist, and Matsui, who has a sister who has schizophrenia, clearly care about the issue and should work together. Mental illness doesn’t care about party affiliation. It’s time to address it with bipartisanship.