Petty Politics, Worry About SAMHSA Funding Behind Dueling Mental Health Bills

Arizona Rep. Ron Barber with former Rep. Gabby  Giffords

Arizona Rep. Ron Barber with former Rep. Gabby Giffords

The Democrats revealed competing mental health legislation Tuesday in a move to derail the bill that Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) has been pushing through the House. Behind the scenes, I was told that petty partisan politics are more at play here than the public may realize.  One story making the rounds is that Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the Minority Leader of the House, was not keen on having Murphy, a Republican, being responsible for pushing a social reform bill through Congress because social reform is supposed to be the hallmark of Democrats not Republicans.

Okay, I’ve just written that based on what several legitimate Capitol Hill sources told me and when I re-read it, I realized how childish it sounds. But honest, that is what I have been told by activists who are working behind the scenes trying to pass Murphy’s bill and those trying to stop it. Yep, by both sides.

I was also told that Rep. Ron Barber (D-Az.)  one of the drafters of the Democrat’s bill, was not happy that Rep. Murphy didn’t make enough of an effort to consult with him before introducing his bill.

You might recall that Rep. Barber served as district director for U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords before she was shot. Rep. Barber also was wounded by Jared Loughner, having been shot in the thigh and face during that horrific Tuscon shooting.  Rep. Barber was the director and program manager of the Arizona Division of Developmental Disabilities in Pima County from 1974 to 2006 and he reportedly felt Murphy’s attack of SAMHSA in his bill is misplaced. You can read Rep. Barber’s comments about the Democrat’s bill here.

Here’s an ironic Washington twist. While the mental health community is busy fighting about Assisted Out-Patient Treatment and coercion, all I heard yesterday in the halls of Congress were laments by different interest groups scrambling to protect SAMHSA and their favorite programs from being cut. Some critics are calling Murphy’s legislation “Torrey’s Revenge” — a reference to Dr. E. Fuller Torrey’s persistent efforts to drive a spike through  SAMHSA and its funding of programs that he has criticized as being anti-psychiatry and “feel good” programs that are not evidence based.

As I have noted here before, Dr. Torrey’s fingerprints can be found all over Rep. Murphy’s bill and that, by itself, is enough to enrage and frighten some advocates in the recovery and consumer movements.

It would be nice if the Democrats and Republicans would actually read the two bills and talk civilly about how best to achieve what we all should want: mental health services that will help people recover and stop the jailing of people whose only real crime is that they got sick.

Instead, we are getting a lot of saber rattling and hyperbole.

In fairness, there’s been a lot of talk about the harm that Rep. Murphy’s bill will do to people with mental illnesses that has been spouted — even during congressional testimony — by folks who’ve not  bothered to read his bill.

letter damning Rep. Murphy’s bill  being distributed by the National Disability Leadership Alliance is the latest to outrage Rep. Murphy  – so much so that he wrote  a 13 page rebuttal. I’ve provided a link to the Alliance’s attack and here is a link to Rep. Murphy’s detailed  rebuttal, a copy of which I obtained late last night.

Here is an excerpt that will give you a feel for the Alliance’s letter attacking Rep. Murphy’s bill.

(Rep. Murphy’s Bill ) would be a giant step backward for Americans with disabilities. This bill includes provisions that would silence our voices, reduce our choices, compromise our rights and destroy programs that protect our rights and safety. It would increase the use of involuntary commitment by the criminal justice system, coerced psychiatric treatment, and hospitalization, heralding a return to the failed policies of the past. It would undermine the progress made by people with disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Supreme Court’s Olmstead decision towards full participation in society and a life in the community.

And here is part of the Pittsburgh psychologist’s detailed reply.

From multiple public forums, congressional hearings, investigative work, and in interviews with providers, families, and patients, three key reasons were repeatedly cited as to why those with serious mental illness (SMI) often are just as likely to end up homeless, in prison, or dead by suicide as in a meaningful healthcare treatment setting.

First, families are often shut out from helping a loved one experiencing an acute mental health crisis due to confusing federal standards on what a caregiver can be told about their loved one’s illness, and what information medical providers can accept from a caregiver.

Second, there exists a significant lack of inpatient treatment and outpatient treatment options.

Third, current federal resources are not targeted towards the hardest-to-treat patients, and in some cases, are actually blocking them from accessing medical care. For instance, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration provides grants to legal advocates and anti-psychiatry activists working to stop care instead of funding needed medical treatment.

To be clear, nothing in the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act undermines civil rights or jeopardizes the safety of persons with mental illness. In fact, the legislation helps more persons with mental illness live in a community-based setting because the bill offers greater choice, supportive services, and effective treatment options with a focus on recovery. It reinforces a basic civil and human right by providing access to medical treatment to improve the quality of life and help those with serious mental illness recover.

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.