Lawmakers Consider Adding Mental Health Bill to Opioid Conference
By Peter Sullivan The Hill June 2, 2016
Lawmakers are considering adding a mental health reform bill to the work of a conference committee focused on opioid legislation, according to congressional aides.
The idea is to add a mental health bill from Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) to the product coming out of the conference committee that is reconciling the differences between House and Senate bills on the opioid crisis.
Aides caution that adding in the Cassidy-Murphy bill is just an idea that has been floated and is far from a final decision.
Cassidy and Murphy have been looking for ways to push their bill forward, and the conference committee could provide such a path.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who has been pushing for action on opioids, expressed concern that adding in additional items such as mental health legislation could slow down the work of the conference committee.
"Portman has made clear this opioid epidemic is a crisis and we need to get a bill signed into law as quickly as possible," said Portman spokesman Kevin Smith.
It is also unclear whether the House would be receptive to the idea of adding the Senate mental health bill to its work.
The House has its own mental health bill, from Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.). While there are some similarities between the bills, the Senate measure leaves out many of the more controversial elements of the House bill, such as an overhaul of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration that some House Democrats fear would gut the agency.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee is planning to mark up Murphy’s bill this month.
There also could be a path for the Senate bill outside of the opioid conference committee. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said in May that he hoped the bill could reach the Senate floor in June, though obstacles remain. One remaining hurdle is the possible addition of a mental health bill from Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) that includes gun-related provisions that have drawn Democratic objections. Cornyn's bill also includes measures on other areas like increasing treatment for mentally ill people as an alternative to prison.
The Cassidy-Murphy bill authorizes grants for topics such as integrating physical and mental health services, though the amounts of funding will depend on the appropriations process. It also seeks to strengthen enforcement of “parity” laws that require insurance companies to cover mental health services just as much as they cover physical health services.
An expansion of a mental health bill from Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) could also be added to the opioid conference committee. The expansion would give funding for urgent care mental health clinics to more states.
“Since the passage of my Excellence in Mental Health Act, I have been committed to moving the bill into a nationwide program,” Stabenow said in a statement. “I’m looking into all options available to move this bill forward so that people in communities across the country can benefit from the same quality of care.”