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Covid Mental Health Fallout Spurs House Bills to Fund Assistance

June 30, 2020, 8:44 PM

Federal mental health assistance may gain traction in the House as lawmakers consider expanding Medicare for some services and creating behavioral health grants for areas with Covid-19 surges.

Mental health and substance abuse treatment advocates say they need money to help clinics and health-care providers stay in business as the coronavirus pandemic keeps many from seeking treatment.

“We need to keep the lights on,” said Andrew Kessler, founder and principal of Slingshot Solutions LLC, a consulting firm that specializes in behavioral health policy.

The U.S. was already facing a mental health and addiction crisis before the pandemic struck: Suicide and drug overdoses killed more than 100,000 Americans annually between 2015 and 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee reviewed 22 mental health bills Tuesday and Democratic leaders signaled the legislation could come to the House floor this year, possibly as part of the next coronavirus-relief package. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), chairman of the committee, said he expects the bills to get votes.

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.)
Photo by Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Democrats blamed the Trump administration for failing to send already-appropriated money to behavioral health providers.

Congress appropriated funds but the government has “been too slow to release them,” said Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), chair of the Health Subcommittee.

Problem Made Worse

In 2018, 128 people died in the U.S. after overdosing on opioids, CDC data show. Drug overdose fatalities rose by more than 10% for the first four months of 2020 compared with the same period in the previous year, according to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

The spread of the coronavirus has fueled cases of anxiety and depression. One survey, by Mental Health America from February, found 88,000 more Americans nationwide were found to have anxiety or depression compared with just three months before.

Many drug treatment centers and mental health providers are struggling financially, and have yet to benefit from government funds for those affected by the coronavirus.

Congress appropriated $175 billion to provide Covid-19-related relief to hospitals and other health providers in the CARES Act (Public Law 116-136). The Department of Health and Human Services has given out roughly $112 billion so far.

Most of the distributions have been built around Medicare, sending money to providers based on their previous Medicare revenue, Kessler said. Behavioral health providers, particularly substance abuse treatment providers, typically handle far more beneficiaries of Medicaid, the health-care program for the poor, than those covered by Medicare, which serves the elderly and disabled, he said.

Mental health services have been “chronically underfunded” in the U.S. for decades, Patrick Kennedy, a former congressman and Founder of the Kennedy Forum, a behavioral health advocacy group, told the committee.

This year Congress has dedicated $425 million to behavioral health through the CARES Act, yet the economic decline created by the spread of the virus likely will result in billions of dollars in cuts to Medicaid by states in the next year, Kennedy warned. Funding for behavioral health amounts to less than 1% of the total spending in the CARES Act, he said.

“It all revolves around the money,” he said. “As we know you see what’s important based on what you spend your money on.”

Disagreements

Republicans and Democrats on the panel agreed that Congress needs to address the mental health challenges worsened by the coronavirus, yet differed over more than half the bills the panel reviewed.

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) said Republicans support nine of the bills, including one (H.R. 7316) to create a special center for training mental health providers and another (H.R. 7293) to expand suicide awareness and training in schools.

Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas) said he doesn’t support a measure (H.R. 884) that would give more independence to clinical psychologists to treat Medicare patients without approval from a physician, because it would expand the definition of a physician under Medicare.

Eshoo said the bills would help health-care providers better meet the increasing demand for their services.

“The pandemic is fueling mental health problems while also hurting the ability for caregivers to deal with the crisis,” the California Democrat said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alex Ruoff in Washington at aruoff@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at phendrie@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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