House passes bills to improve mental healthcare access

The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday passed two bills that call for increased funding and access to mental health resources for emergency department patients and healthcare professionals.

The Improving Access to Mental Health Act, sponsored by Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.) will award grants to emergency departments looking to expand mental health programs for those experiencing an acute mental health episode. This includes increasing the supply of in-patient beds and coordination with regional service providers, who may be better suited to provide follow-up care than crowded emergency departments. Some of the funding will also go toward more experimental approaches to care such as telehealth consultations and creating emergency psychiatric service units.

“As an emergency physician, I know the barriers to getting mental health patients the follow-up care they need,” Ruiz said in a statement Thursday.

One in eight emergency department visits involve an adult struggling with either mental health or substance abuse, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Many patients turn to the emergency department because there aren’t beds available in local in-patient facilities, with some spending days waiting for the appropriate care. This adds to the burden emergency medical professionals have taken on over the last year, according to Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.).

Bera sponsored another bill passed Thursday, the HERO Act, which would develop tactics for targeted interventions to prevent suicide among emergency personnel.

“Our first responders already experience higher mental health stress and higher risk of suicide than many other professions,” Bera said in a statement. “It’s our obligation to be there for them in their time of need by ensuring they have access to life-saving mental healthcare.”

The HERO Act, would allow the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to set up a database tracking suicide incidence among public safety officials and emergency healthcare providers. The database would track the total number of suicides by public safety agency, state, gender, age and career status. The data would be used to analyze more effective intervention strategies to prevent these deaths, but privacy mechanisms would be set up to keep parts of the registry confidential. Additional funding will go toward training peer support specialists, who are counselors with similar mental health challenges able to assist in providing care, within hospitals and public safety departments.

CMS data from March through October 2020 show beneficiaries under age 19 had 14 million fewer mental health visits, a 34% decline from the year prior, and adults on Medicaid had 12 million fewer visits or a 22% decline.

Both bills will now go to the Senate for committee consideration.