ADJOURNED 'til Thursday at 11 a.m. (Formal)
ADJOURNED 'til Thursday at 11 a.m. (Formal)
House Ready To Pass Mental Health Bill Thursday .: The State House News Service

House Ready To Pass Mental Health Bill Thursday

Issue Will Join Others Subject to House-Senate Talks

JUNE 15, 2022.....A focus on youth behavioral health underpins the mental health bill that House lawmakers plan to vote on Thursday, top Democrats said.

Speaker Ronald Mariano has said representatives would pass their own mental health bill to "complement" one the Senate approved last November, and the House bill received an initial approval vote Wednesday after it emerged from the House Ways and Means Committee.

House lawmakers are set to take up their bill (H 4879) on Thursday, and its passage would give the two branches a little more than six weeks to reconcile a pair of wide-ranging bills that have some overlap before formal legislative sessions end for the year on July 31.

"We all share the same goal of getting this over the finish line because it's just far too important to our constituents across the commonwealth," Rep. Adrian Madaro, the House chair of the Mental Health, Substance Use and Recovery Committee, told the News Service. "The goal and the hope here is that with the two bills combined, we're really going to be able to move the needle in a significant way on behavioral health in the commonwealth and really benefit the countless people who really need our help."

The Senate's bill (S 2584) mandates insurance coverage for an annual mental health wellness exam, eliminates insurers' prior authorization for patients who need acute mental health treatment, and sets a rate floor to reimburse mental health clinicians at the same level as primary care providers for evaluation and management services, among other measures.

Like the version now before the House, the Senate legislation includes policies aimed at tackling a longstanding problem that reached crisis levels amid the COVID-19 pandemic: long stays in emergency rooms for patients waiting for a psychiatric bed. Both bills also have language aimed at ensuring compliance with mental health parity laws, though Madaro said the approaches differ somewhat.

The House bill, according to a summary, would also require insurance coverage without prior authorization for acute mental health treatment and would require coverage for annual mental health wellness exams.

It features language around the implementation of the new national 988 mental health hotline and would create a public awareness campaign on the state's "red flag" or extreme risk protection order law that allows family or household members to request the courts temporarily rescind gun ownership rights of someone believed to be a danger.

Madaro, an East Boston Democrat, said the bill does a "deep dive into the behavioral health needs of young people."

"The behavioral health crisis is particularly acute in younger populations," he said. "Keep in mind, we all had to deal with the effects of the lack of socialization [and] the isolation of the pandemic, but that was particularly difficult for young people."

The House bill would create a program to help districts implement school-based behavioral health services, limit suspensions and expulsions in early education and care programs, require behavioral health assessments and referrals for children entering the foster care system, and empower the Office of the Child Advocate to receive complaints from children and families around access to behavioral health services.

"We wanted to focus on the school-based issues and the youth and juvenile treatments that we feel are lacking," Speaker Mariano said after meeting privately with House Democrats. "Someone in the caucus just threw out a stat that the largest cause of death between kids 10 and 14 is suicide. If that doesn't ring alarm bells, I don't know what would, so we want to make sure we strengthen programs that exist and create a few things that will help deal with some of those issues."

On the workforce front, Madaro said the bill includes measures aimed at addressing recruitment and retention. He said a workforce shortage in behavioral health predates the pandemic, with providers leaving the field faster than new ones are entering.

Senate President Karen Spilka released a statement late Wednesday expressing gratitude to the House for advancing its bill.

"If there is any silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that more people are willing to talk openly about their need for quality mental and behavioral health care," Spilka said. "Yet our delivery system is broken, and people can't easily get the care they need and deserve. With the release of this bill from the House Committee on Ways and Means, we are one step closer to transforming that delivery system."

Health Care for All Executive Director Amy Rosenthal said the House bill would "improve access to mental health care for individuals and families throughout the Commonwealth."

"While Massachusetts has made great strides in expanding health coverage, many families still face barriers to accessing the care they need," she said in a statement. "This is especially true for behavioral health, and the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated an already growing behavioral health crisis, especially among youth. The House mental health bill contains provisions to help address these challenges."

The Massachusetts Association of Health Plans identified several measures of the House bill it backs, including the annual mental health wellness exam, reporting requirements to ensure compliance with parity laws and expansion of school-based behavioral health services.

"MAHP and our member health plans are pleased to see that the legislation includes several important policy solutions to reduce emergency department boarding of patients seeking mental health and substance use disorder services, including codifying the expedited psychiatric inpatient admission process, and ensuring patients have timely access to the care they need while in crisis," Lora Pellegrini, the association's president and CEO, said in a statement.


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