Editorials

Congress steps toward helping mentally ill people

Tents from a homeless encampment line a street in downtown Los Angeles in January. The House has approved HR 2646, which would provide more care and treatment of severely mentally ill people, though it would not help them find housing.
Tents from a homeless encampment line a street in downtown Los Angeles in January. The House has approved HR 2646, which would provide more care and treatment of severely mentally ill people, though it would not help them find housing. Associated Press file

In an era when bipartisanship is rare, the U.S. House of Representatives has taken a step toward providing more care and treatment of severely mentally ill people.

The U.S. Senate, including California Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, should take a cue from the House and approve HR 2646, the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act.

The bill, introduced after the slaughter at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, passed the House by a vote of 422-2 – not a typo. Speaker Paul Ryan and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi agreed, as did the most conservative Republicans and most liberal Democrats.

Hardly an end-all, the bill doesn’t help mentally ill people find housing, and it definitely is no substitute for far-reaching gun safety legislation. But by approving HR 2646, the House showed a commitment to an issue that too often is ignored.

The bill seeks to make clear to mental health care providers that they would not be violating federal privacy law if they share information with family members about mentally ill adult children, siblings or spouses. That one provision makes the bill worthwhile.

The bill could provide more money to states to hospitalize the most severely mentally ill people, require Medicare to pay for anti-psychotic medication, and provide greater parity in care for people with physical and mental illnesses.

The legislation provides some money – though not enough – for suicide prevention, to train police to handle severely mentally ill people, and to encourage states to undertake more intensive outreach programs to help mentally ill people who resist treatment.

This bill creates the position of assistant secretary for mental health and substance use disorders, offering an important bully pulpit to advocate for the mentally ill.

Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Tim Murphy deserves praise for raising the issue, sticking with it and winning over Democrats, among them Rep. Ami Bera, D-Elk Grove, one of the earliest supporters.

Michigan’s Energy and Commerce Committee chair Fred Upton, a Republican, and New Jersey Rep. Frank Pallone, the ranking Democrat on the committee, reached the final compromise. Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, initially a skeptic, helped shape the discussion. We hope Feinstein and Boxer will follow Matsui and Pelosi’s lead.

In this election year, Democrats and Republicans will seek every advantage as they try to win or maintain control of Congress. But they also must understand that mental illness knows no party, and that they all will come away with victory if they provide some measure of care for people who cannot care for themselves.

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