Dr. McCance-Katz Breezes Through Confirmation Hearing On Her Way To Become New Mental Health/Substance Abuse Czar


(8-1-17) Dr. Elinore F. McCance-Katz, the Trump Administration’s nominee to become the Department of Health and Human Service‘s first Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Abuse breezed through her confirmation hearing this afternoon.

She appeared before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), one of the final hurdles before she can assume oversight of the 8 federal agencies and 112 federal programs that deal with mental health and substance abuse.

Dr. McCance-Katz said her top priorities would be dealing with the opioid crisis and focusing on serious mental illnesses.

As expected, most of the questions from the HELP committee centered on the opioid crisis, but Sens. Bill Cassidy (R.-La.) and Chris Murphy (D.-Conn.) zeroed in on mental illness. This was not surprising because they were responsible for introducing the Senate version of Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Tim Murphy’s Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act, which created the Assistant Secretary position. A much altered version of the original House bill became law in December during the waning days of the Obama administration.

Both senators told Dr. McCance-Katz that they expected her to use the “tools” and “powers” that the new law gives her to break down silos and force federal agencies to begin cooperating and coordinating their efforts.

Sen. Cassidy, who also is a medical doctor, specifically criticized SAMHSA (the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) calling it “dysfunctional.”

Dr. McCance-Katz replied that meeting individually with the heads of the federal agencies that specifically deal with mental illness and substance abuse would be one of her first priorities. She added that she would use “metrics” to judge the success and worth of all federally funded programs.

Because each senator had limited time to question Dr. McCance-Katz, along with the other four candidates seeking confirmation, Sen. Cassidy fired off his questions in machine-gun style, attempting to ask as many as possible. While he noted that he didn’t expect her to criticize SAMHSA, he said that he would and specifically mentioned it’s funding of programs that encouraged and promoted skepticism of mental health medications.

During his time allotment, Sen. Chris Murphy focused on parity, raising concerns about Senate efforts to pass legislation that would allow insurance companies to avoid covering mental health and substance abuse treatment. Dr. McCance-Katz promised to work with other federal agencies to guarantee that insurers treat mental health and addictions the same as other illnesses.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) took an even tougher stance on parity, saying that she favored the creation of a federal monitoring group that would receive complaints directly from Americans about specific insurance companies that either dodged or denied treatment for mental illnesses and drug addictions. She said those companies should be identified by name to warn families.

Under questioning by Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Dr. McCance-Katz stated that she believed “peers are an essential part of recovery.” When the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis was being formulated in the House, some Republicans questioned the value of peer services.

There was no mention during the confirmation hearing about Rep. Tim Murphy’s public objections to Dr. McCance-Katz, who he claimed didn’t “deserve” to be confirmed because she once worked at SAMHSA and only criticized the agency after leaving it.

Sen. Cassidy assured Dr. McCance-Katz that he and Sen. Murphy would be her strongest champions on the HELP committee because of their role in helping create her job. Fixing the mental health system was a top priority to both of them, Sen. Cassidy said.

The committee will meet in private session Wednesday to review all five candidates. Based on today’s hearings, it would appear that Dr. McCance-Katz should be confirmed without objection and be appointed hopefully within a few weeks.

You can watch the entire confirmation hearing 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.