BOSTON – In response to a “crisis” amplified by the pandemic, the state Senate on Tuesday unveiled a plan to expand mental health care in Massachusetts.
The proposal calls for shortening the time it takes for newly hired mental and behavioral health professionals to be approved by insurance networks, and would require insurers to cover same-day care. Lawmakers have described these areas as two significant financial barriers for people seeking services.
The proposal would also create a mental health workforce to increase the number of clinicians, improve diversity and ensure that patients receive “culturally competent care”.
A key part of the proposal, which will be picked up next week, is the integration of behavioral health and primary care by requiring insurers to cover annual mental health exams as part of regular wellness visits to hospitals. doctors’ offices.
“The pandemic has made it clear how important quality mental health care is,” Senate Speaker Karen Spilka D-Ashland said in a live briefing on Tuesday. “So we have a responsibility right now to ensure that every resident has equitable access to mental health care.”
Supporters of the law say it will remove barriers to services that have helped “board” psychiatric patients in hospital emergency rooms.
“Too many people struggle to access mental health care, and it has been a problem for some time,” said Senator Julian Cyr, D-Truro, one of the main architects of the bill. âThe cornerstone of this legislation is that mental health is just as important as a person’s physical health.
Another co-sponsor, Senator Cindy Friedman, D-Arlington, said the measure will complement major financial investments proposed for the state’s mental health system.
Two weeks ago, the House approved a plan to spend $ 3.82 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funds and excess revenue that would divert $ 250 million specifically for behavioral health programs. The money would be focused on initiatives such as student loan repayment and training.
A Senate plan due to pass Wednesday includes a proposal to divert $ 400 million in ARPA funds to mental health services and behavioral health providers.
The Senate APRA spending plan calls for spending at least $ 122 million to recruit and retain nearly 2,000 behavioral professionals.
It would also allocate $ 10 million to create new acute mental health care beds focused on children and underserved communities.
The Senate unanimously approved a similar mental health care bill in February 2020, but the measure was not taken up by the House.
Recent studies support claims that mental health problems are on the rise – even as the pandemic subsides – especially among children.
More than 20% of teenage hospitalizations between Jan. 1 and March 31 were for psychiatric emergencies, not COVID-19, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In 2020, the percentage of emergency room visits for mental health issues increased by 24% for children aged 5 to 11 and by 31% for those aged 12 to 17, compared to 2019, according to federal data. .
Nationally, there were 50% more hospital visits linked to suicide attempts among girls aged 12 to 17 in early 2021 than in early 2019, the report said. federal agency.
Meanwhile, a shortage of staff and beds in mental health units means adults and children often end up ‘boarding’ emergency rooms while waiting for services.
âJust imagine being the parent of a child in the middle of a mental health crisis that requires immediate treatment but being told that they are not available or that your insurance does not cover servicesâ¦ or that they are there are no beds within 50 miles, âFriedman said Tuesday. “It happens all the time, and it is unacceptable.”
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for newspapers and the websites of the North of Boston Media Group. Email him at [email protected]