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Gun Bill Offers Bipartisan Chance to Fund Mental Health Centers

June 23, 2022, 4:36 PM

Two senators have been trying for almost a decade to get support for spending billions of dollars on clinics specially designed to help people struggling with mental health problems and addiction. Now, their efforts are bearing fruit as the chamber prepares to vote on gun-control legislation.

Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) say they’ve been pitching colleagues for years on the need to send federal money to health clinics and alleviate the burden of mental health crisis care from ill-equipped police forces and emergency rooms. The clinics, the pair say, would fill the gap in care left when the nation shuttered its psychiatric hospitals in the 1950s and 1960s.

A breakthrough came this year as a bipartisan group of senators discussed how to stem gun violence in the wake of the mass shooting of children and two teachers at a Texas elementary school. The group wanted to pair gun purchase restrictions with major spending for mental health care.

“Everybody realized this was a moment to do something really transformative,” Stabenow told reporters this week.

Sen. Roy Blunt speaks at a Capitol Hill press conference with Sen. Debbie Stabenow almost a decade ago as they pushed for strengthening the nation’s mental health service. Appearing with them at the Feb. 7, 2013 event was David O. Russell director of the film “Silver Linings Playbook.”
Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Senate is scheduled to vote on legislation that would give $3 billion to mental health and school safety programs, as well as $2 billion for student mental health and school safety initiatives. Grants also would go to mental health training for pediatricians and mental health awareness programs.

In total, Stabenow said, the package would dedicate about $8 billion to mental health and school-based programs. By comparison, the fiscal 2022 allocation for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration was just over $6 billion.

The Senate voted 64-34 to advance the bipartisan gun-safety legislation Tuesday, signaling it’s likely to pass the chamber soon. House leaders have said they’ll put it up for a vote soon afterward.

Health Clinics

One of the most significant components of the package would expand the federal Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics, currently in a limited number of states, to nationwide. Under the legislation, 10 new states can opt into the program every two years, according to an outline of the legislation provided by the group that negotiated the agreement.

Blunt said he and Stabenow first developed the idea in 2013 and got a bill passed in 2014 that created a demonstration project in eight states. They followed that up with grants and other funding over the years to grow it to 40 states and more than 300 clinics, federal data show.

Supporters say the clinics have proven effective in keeping people with addiction or mental health problems out of emergency rooms and prisons and in treatment. The clinics saved New York state more than $1 million from decreased hospitalizations and almost $100,000 from decreased emergency room visits, a Government Accountability Office reportfrom 2021 found.

“If passed, this bill will forever change how people access mental health and substance use treatment in their communities,” Chuck Ingoglia, president and chief executive officer of the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, said.

When senators were debating a gun violence package, one of the earliest agreements was the need to include some spending to expand mental health services, senators said. They were willing to devote as much as $10 billion on this part of the package, they said.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), one of they key negotiators of the gun violence bill, said the mental health funding in the legislation “could be the most important part of the bill.”

“Our mental health care delivery system in American is a scandal and we see the consequences everywhere,” he said.

Cornyn said he sees evidence that people who commit mass shootings like the one at an elementary school in Uvalde in his home state a month ago didn’t get mental health services even though they showed signs of mental illness.

Blunt, who’s retiring at the end of this year, said he reached out to Cornyn when senators were first starting to talk about a gun violence package. He said Cornyn and Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) both supported expanding community health centers.

“I told them ‘we got a model that’s working,’” Blunt said. “It’s working in Texas.”

The US has major gaps in mental health services, particularly for children. Only about 20% of children with some kind of mental health disorders get care from a provider trained to treat those illnesses, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show.

The problem is particularly acute in Texas, which the nonprofit advocacy group Mental Health America ranks last in terms of mental health access.

Cornyn said the issue has come down to the state shortchanging mental health programs.

“The Texas legislature has tried to address it but it’s never enough, never comprehensive enough,” he said. “It’s always a money question.”

Stabenow said she spoke with Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), another key negotiator, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) about including her and Blunt’s idea in the package.

Her pitch: this needs to be done regardless of the gun violence bill.

Murphy, whose state was the site of the mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown in 2012, said he was wary of tying mental health to a gun violence package. People with mental health issues are more often to be the victim of a violent crime than the perpetrator, he reasoned. Despite that, Murphy’s long supported programs like community health centers, he said.

“If the price of getting changes in our gun laws was to help fix our broken mental health system why wouldn’t I be game for that,” Murphy said.

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

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com; Giuseppe Macri at gmacri@bgov.com