How Biden Plans to Tackle Chronic Gaps in Mental Health Care

(Washington D.C.) — President Joe Biden’s new plan to expand mental health and drug abuse treatment would pour hundreds of millions of dollars into suicide prevention, mental health services for youth, and community clinics providing 24/7 access to people in crisis.

Unveiled as part of his State of the Union speech, Biden’s plan seeks to shrink America’s chronic gap in care between diseases of the body and those of the mind. Three mental health visits per year would be covered by insurance.

Biden will need to get the support of lawmakers from both sides in order to make such an important move. Every congressional district has problems with substance abuse and mental well-being. In addition, there are rising levels of anxiety and depression as a result of the coronavirus epidemic. Some senior Republicans have expressed support in principle for government action, but it’s too early to say where they’ll end up.
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“And let’s get all Americans the mental health services they need,” Biden said in his speech Tuesday night. “More people can turn for help. And full parity between physical and mental health care if we treat it that way in our insurance.”

That’s been the unrealized goal of federal health care laws dating back nearly 25 years, said Hannah Wesolowski of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “This represents an important agenda that impacts every American,” said Wesolowski, referring to Biden’s plan.

Legislators have shown interest in the topic for months. Hearings were held in the Senate by the Finance Committee and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee with a bipartisan emphasis. Hearings were also held in the House by the Energy and Commerce Committee and Ways and Means Committee. They do the majority of Congress’ work in health care.

Advocates say such sustained attention is uncommon. “I cannot remember a time when every committee of jurisdiction has held hearings on mental health,” said Charles Ingoglia, president of the National Council for Mental Wellbeing. “Sometimes we have gone years between dedicated hearings on mental health.”

The White House wants to attract lawmakers, weaving together threads from Capitol Hill into an ambitious package and setting its priorities.

“I think he highlighted a few key areas where we have good work to do,” Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said in her reaction to Biden’s speech.

“He spoke to the issue of mental health and what more needs to be done,” she added.

Biden’s plan includes a special focus on school-age youth. The first year of the pandemic in 2020 saw kids adapt differently to remote learning. People without the right technology resources could be left behind. Teenagers were affected by isolation. The White House says Biden’s upcoming budget will call for $1 billion to help schools hire counselors, psychologists and other health workers. A budget proposal of $5 million will be made for research about the impact of social media on children. Seconding bipartisan sentiment in Congress, Biden is calling for curbs on social media companies’ ability to collect data on children.

Also, the coverage policies for health insurance plans will be more closely monitored. The White House says Biden’s budget will call for insurers to cover “robust behavioral health services with an adequate network of providers.” Three free behavioral health visits a year would be part of it.

This July, the government will launch a new suicide prevention hotline number — 988. Biden’s plan calls for nearly $700 million to bolster local crisis centers that can handle follow-up. In preparation of the expected rise in phone calls due to three-digit dialing, this plan focuses on basic issues such as staffing and operating hours.

Plan also includes permanentizing an experimental program, which provides 24/7 access to mental and substance-abuse services. It’s called Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics, modeled on federally funded community health centers that have become a foundation for basic medical care in low-income communities. Peer counselors, who are survivors of trauma themselves, help other people get out of trouble in the behavioral health center. This approach is supported by both parties.

Undergirding Biden’s plan is an effort to increase the number of mental health professionals by devoting $700 million to programs that provide training, scholarships and educational loan repayment. Senate Finance Committee hearings were devoted to expanding the mental health workforce. Biden wants to set professional standards for peer counsellors in order to fill a new frontline position.

Megan Ranney said that she could expect relief at the Providence emergency room where she works in Rhode Island if everything comes together. Individuals with mental and/or substance abuse problems will have more options to seek help.

“The crisis doesn’t happen overnight,” said Ranney. “It’s usually something that has been smoldering for a while. And then when it does get bad enough, they have nowhere to go and they end up spending days to weeks in the emergency department.”


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