By Jackie Kucinich
A bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill Thursday that would expand and improve the availability of mental health services for people with mental illnesses in the hopes of addressing yet another issue tied to the gun-control debate.
Republican Sens. Roy Blunt of Missouri, Marco Rubio of Florida and Susan Collins of Maine joined Democrats Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Barbara Boxer of California, Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Patrick Leahy of Vermont in sponsoring the bill that would implement new services and accountability standards for community mental health centers. To encourage compliance with the new standards, the bill would allow mental health centers to bill Medicaid for services once they meet the standards.
The bill would support services including 24-hour crisis counseling, integration of mental health and substance abuse treatment and additional support for families of mental health patients.
Stabenow said the group did not have a cost estimate for the bill at this point, but she predicted it would cost $1 billion over 10 years and use mainly existing dollars for funding.
"One of the reasons this is so important and really sets the stage for integrating behavioral health into physical health centers is that we are using something that already exists," Stabenow said.
Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., the author of a 2012 House version of the bill, is likely to introduce similar legislation in the House, Stabenow said.
The legislation was introduced in both chambers in the 112th Congress and ultimately went nowhere, but the issue of mental health care has gained new relevance after the shooting of 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
In addition to signing several executive orders to help those with mental illness, President Obama has promised to issue final rules this month to extend mental health parity to everyone who is covered by the Affordable Care Act. The rules will go in effect in January - a fact Stabenow said makes the legislation well-timed.
MORE: Impending rules will guide equality for mental health
"The fact that we are putting in place better funding for Medicaid right now is the perfect time to be able to expand this and make sure that it includes federally qualified behavioral health centers," she said.
A House Democratic task force released its recommendations to curb gun violence during the party's retreat in Landsdowne, Va, Thursday. The proposals, made after several weeks of hearings and meeting with stakeholders on every side of the gun-control issue, largely reflected those that Vice President Joe Biden released last month.
"They're fairly close," said Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., when asked about the differences between the plans. He said the House Democrats' proposal offers more detail on early intervention and mental health proposals.
Contributing: Kelly Kennedy and Susan Davis