Rep. Murphy Rips White House Nominee: “Doesn’t Deserve” Top Mental Health Job

(4-26-17) Republican Representative Tim Murphy from Pennsylvania today publicly denounced the White House’s decision to nominate Dr. Ellie McCance-Katz, to be the first Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Use in the Department of Health and Human Services.

During an appearance on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, he said, “I hope that the President withdraws this nomination. I hope that if she advances forward the Senate does not confirm her.” He added: “She doesn’t deserve to be Assistant Secretary.”  

Dr. McCance-Katz currently serves as the chief medical officer for the state Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals in Rhode Island. The White House announced her nomination last Friday, ending weeks of speculation about who might get the top mental health and substance abuse job that was created because of legislation that Rep. Murphy wrote and shepherded through Congress into law in December.

His appearance today came after his office issued a strongly worded press release on Monday criticizing Dr. McCance-Katz for not doing more during the two years that she worked at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) during the Obama administration as the agency’s chief medical officer.

The White House selected her from three candidates that included Miami Dade Judge Steve Leifman and Dr. Michael Welner, a forensic psychiatrist.

I strongly endorsed my good friend Judge Leifman for the job, but Rep. Murphy objected to him because he was not a psychiatrist (although that was not a requirement for the post) and reportedly because Rep. Murphy felt appointing someone from the criminal justice system to oversee the federal government’s largest mental health and substance abuse agency sent the public the wrong message.

In recent days, it has become clear that Rep. Murphy’s choice candidate is Dr. Welner, who I first met when both of us testified at the first hearing Rep. Murphy held after the 2012 Newtown shootings. The congressman has credited Dr. Welner with helping him draft what would become his Helping Families In Mental Health Crisis Act. At the hearing, Dr. Welner criticized HIPAA privacy laws that prevented families from obtaining information about a family member with mental illness.

The family is an essential informant of a mentally ill child’s condition, “but the HIPAA law says that you can’t talk,” said Michael Welner, MD, a forensic psychiatrist who’s the founder and chair of the Forensic Panel. The result is the family takes home a patient who is severely ill without having access to the patient’s doctor, and with no interim manual for mental health training, Dr. Welner said.

The congressman’s criticism of Dr. McCance-Katz was intended to thwart her nomination which must be approved by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. House members do not vote to confirm presidential appointees, only Senators do. 

Members of Congress frequently try to stop a presidential appointment, but such fighting is typically party based (such as the recent dust up between Democrats and Republicans about the now confirmed U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch). That fact that Rep. Murphy, who is a Republican, is challenging a Republican president makes it unusual. It reveals how strongly Rep. Murphy wants to derail Dr. McCance-Katz and replace her with his choice.

Rep. Murphy told viewers that he had created the assistant secretary position in his bill to “add accountability (at SAMHSA).” Adding, “The first person there should be a person who is bold and courageous. Not someone who, by their own self-admission, says, “I’d rather have a paycheck than ethics.” He said that he was quoting Dr. McCance-Katz from a private conversation they had.

When contacted, Dr. McCance-Katz chose not to respond to the congressman’s criticism.

Rep. Murphy’s backing of Dr. Welner over the White House choice initially shocked many of Dr. McCance-Katz’s supporters. After she resigned from SAMHSA, she wrote an article heavily criticizing her former employer. Nearly all of her charges echoed complaints that Rep. Murphy has made.

In her article, she claimed that SAMHSA was openly hostile toward the use of psychiatric medicine, didn’t focus on helping the seriously mentally ill, and questioned whether bipolar disorder and schizophrenia were even real, arguing that psychosis is just a “different way of thinking for someone experiencing stress.”

Dr. Welner was involved in helping Rep. Murphy draft his original legislation and has been both a strong supporter of the Pittsburg legislator and the Trump Administration. He is controversial in psychiatric circles largely because he is the author of the “depravity scale” which attempts to classify crimes by moral severity, and has worked – as the founder of The Forensic Panel – for prosecutors in several high profile cases involving individuals with mental illness, often arguing that defendants knew the difference between right and wrong when they committed a crime.

In public, most mental health advocates have refused to comment about Rep. Murphy’s campaign to get Dr. Welner appointed. Some do not wish to publicly tangle with Rep. Murphy, who has been a hero to many in the mental health field for his dogged determination. Others are avoiding comment because they believe he has a right to push his choice given that the assistant secretary position would not have been created without his legislation.

Behind the scenes, however, some key advocates who supported and worked closely with Rep. Murphy are pushing Dr. McCance-Katz for the post.

One of those who has not been timid about challenging Rep. Murphy is D. J. Jaffe who worked closely with the congressman’s staff to get Murphy’s bill passed. Jaffe, author of “Insane Consequences: How the Mental Health Industry Fails the Mentally Ill” and Exec. Dir. of Mental Illness Policy Org.  defended Dr. McCance-Katz in a  Manhattan Institute/City Journal editorial.

Representative Tim Murphy (R., PA), a psychologist and advocate of improved care for the seriously mentally ill—and the legislator behind the creation of the position to which McCrance-Katz has been named—has come out against her nomination. His reasoning is that she used to work at SAMHSA and is therefore part of the problem. But blaming McCance-Katz for the dysfunction at SAMHSA is like blaming Rep. Murphy for the dysfunction in Congress. He’s been part of the solution and so has she.

Both sides are asking their supporters to send emails to senators who will be voting on the nomination.

Rep. Murphy’s comments this morning are a clear signal that the arguing is far from over.

Here is Rep. Murphy’s official press release about his C-Span appearance.

Murphy on C-SPAN: Continuing the Fight for Families in Mental Health Crisis

For Immediate Release: April 26, 2017

WASHINGTON, DC – This morning Congressman Tim Murphy (PA-18), author of the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act and national leader in mental health reform, continued his fight for families in mental health crisis on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal. In case you missed it, check out the highlights and watch the full interview below.

Click here or on the image above to watch Congressman Murphy on C-SPAN.

Top 6 ‘Must See’ Moments:

1. “We have an opportunity here. Our bill was signed into law by President Obama last December… The foundation has been set, the mission is out there but now it’s a matter of putting leadership in charge who can put these things into place.” Watch here.

2. Congressman Murphy asked a family member whose loved one suffers from severe mental illness: “How do you react if you hear that the key federal agency that was tasked with fixing this was sending out messages that people should get off their medication, that schizophrenia doesn’t really exist, or that you can fix it with fish oil or interpretive dancing?”

The response? “I think that’s ridiculous.” Watch here

3. “Most people with mental illness are not violent. But people with severe mental illness who are not in treatment are sixteen times more likely to be violent than someone who is in treatment… These are dangers SAMHSA did not address while Dr. McCance-Katz was there.” Watch here.

4. “The reason we created this position was to add accountability. The first person there should be a person who is bold and courageous. Not someone who, by their own self-admission, says ‘I’d rather have a paycheck than ethics.’” Watch here

5. “I hope that the President withdraws this nomination. I hope that if she advances forward the Senate does not confirm her… She doesn’t deserve to be Assistant Secretary.” Watch here.

6. “For all of these families who called in today with incredible pain, and the thousands of others I’ve heard, it should outrage us to say that this time, when this President wants to… drain the swamp, he put an alligator in charge.” Watch here.

Watch Congressman Murphy’s full interview here.

To learn more about the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act, click here.


About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.