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Rep. Murphy Introduces Bill to Overhaul Federal Mental Health System

The federal government spends around $125 billion on mental health annually, but the ways in which that money is spent are ineffective and antiquated, according to U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Allegheny).

“The amount of money the federal government spends that they have no accountability for, the wasteful things that are done, the complete lack of demanding evidence based care,” Murphy said during a mental health forum at Allegheny General Hospital Monday morning. “There was a recent report that came out in February (which found that) the Department of Defense (spent) over $100 million on their prevention programs, and they found it didn’t make a difference.”

Murphy is a clinical psychologist and a member of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. After a nearly year-long review of the country’s mental health system, Murphy has introduced legislation that would overhaul the system. H.R. 3717, also known as the “Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act” is meant to provide fixes for what Murphy calls a lack of accountability, results-oriented research, and meaningful prevention.

Murphy said two of the main problems are that there is still a widespread stigma against people with mental illnesses, and that many people find it difficult to get treatment or even a diagnosis for mental illness until it’s too late.

“Government has made it difficult to get help and said you can only get help if you’re a danger,” Murphy said. “The only time people really step in is if you’re about to murder someone or murder yourself. People (with a mental illness) have this idea that ‘Oh, they’re just going to lock me up.’ We need people to understand that these (mental illnesses) are diagnosable and they’re treatable and the earlier we catch them the better.”

Murphy proposes to catch, diagnose, and treat mental illnesses earlier by clarifying federal rules on doctors’ ability to communicate with the family and caregivers of people suffering from mental illness. The bill would also increase access to acute care psychiatric beds in hospitals by tweaking Medicaid rules, promote alternatives to long-term inpatient care, advance tele-psychiatry for underserved and rural populations, beef up evidence-based research requirements for federal grant funding, and integrate primary and behavioral health care. The bill would also make it easier for psychiatrists and other clinical healthcare professions to volunteer at community health clinics, which Murphy said is often stymied by federal legal barriers and the high cost of medical malpractice insurance.

Murphy said that between twenty and fifty percent of incarcerated persons struggle with mental illness, which puts a drain on the system and only exacerbates mental health issues.

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala said many people could avoid incarceration with proper diagnosis and treatment, but that often families and caregivers do not know where to get help.

“I think that’s a failure in and of itself that we have not provided enough information for those types of families, where they can help their son, daughter, husband, or wife before they get jammed up in the criminal justice system,” Zappala said.

Both Zappala and Murphy were quick to point out that people with mental illnesses are far more likely to be the victims of violent crime than the perpetrators.

Murphy said there are several effective mental health prevention and research programs including the RAISE project, which stands for Recovery After an Initial Schizophrenia Episode and is taking place in more than twenty community health centers across the country.

Murphy also had praise for the Center for Traumatic Stress in Children and Adolescents, which provides evaluation and treatment for children and teenagers who experience child abuse and neglect, domestic or community violence, death of a family member, disaster, and other forms of trauma.

Murphy said that he doesn’t currently have numbers on how much his proposed overhaul would cost the federal government, but he was confident that it would save the nation money in the long term.

“(Legislators) think if we just throwing money at existing programs that’s all we need to do,” Murphy said. “My point is that existing programs aren’t working. That’s why you’re seeing increases in crime and victimization, homelessness, substance abuse. (These things) have all increased since we started putting money into this.”

Murphy said the bill has received bi-partisan support and that Senate allies in favor of the legislation include Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan), and Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Missouri). The bill was introduced in December 2013 and was referred to the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations in January.