Senate Approves Murphy’s Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act Should Now Become Law!



(12-7-16) Rep. Tim Murphy’s Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act passed 94-5 this afternoon in the U.S. Senate clearing the way for it to be signed into law by President Obama before he leaves office.

Murphy’s mental health reforms, along with Sen. John Cornyn’s (R.Tx.)  Mental Health and Safe Communities Act,  were tucked into the 21st Century Cures Act, a $6.3 billion health care bill that critics called a boondoggle for the pharmaceutical industry, which spent millions lobbying for its passage, but supporters insist will cut bureaucratic red tape that prevents life-saving medicines from reaching markets quickly. Because the Act contains two pet projects of both Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, the Cures Act is expected to be signed quickly.

Murphy, a Pennsylvania Republican who is the only practicing psychologist in Congress, was relentless in pursuing passage of his bill — a process that started nearly four years ago and often turned bitter at congressional hearings. In a release he wrote:

This historic vote is one of the rare moments in Congress where members can say with confidence their vote to pass these reforms will indeed save lives. We are ending the era of stigma surrounding mental illness and focusing on delivering treatment before tragedy. By bringing research, treatments and cures into the 21st Century, we are finally breaking down the wall between physical health and mental health. (Full text of his release can be found at bottom of this blog.)

From the start, Murphy focused on concerns raised by parents and family members about barriers they face trying to help loved ones get help, including what they consider overly restrictive civil rights protections.  Cornyn’s bill was primarily aimed at funding successful criminal justice programs, such as Crisis Intervention Team training for law enforcement, mental health courts, and jail re-entry programs. Both Murphy and Cornyn are strong advocates of increased use of Assisted Outpatient Treatment, which has been strongly opposed by many groups that represent individuals with mental illnesses and disabilities.

 One of the organizations that Murphy depended on for advice and support from the start was the Treatment Advocacy Center, founded by Dr. E. Fuller Torrey. It’s executive director, John Snook, said in an email:

“This is one of the most important moments for mental health in more than fifty years. Mental Health Reform offers real hope to families and their loved ones who have been locked out of care. It focuses squarely on treatment of severe mental illness, providing people access to a bed instead.”

Murphy’s bill met strong opposition from the start from Democrats and eventually underwent numerous revisions to make it more palatable. When the House passed Murphy’s bill last week,  I published a blog that compared some of Murphy’s initial language with what now is in the Cures Act.

In addition to posting Murphy’s release here, I am adding a review of the bill that is being circulated by a consumer group whose members  opposed Murphy’s bill. I felt it would be helpful to see how critics of the bill now see it and the revisions that they helped add to make it more acceptable to them.

Obviously I will be writing more about this bill in later blogs, but I wanted to get news of its passage out ASAP.

Rep. Murphy’s press announcement:

For Immediate Release: December 7, 2016
Contact: Carly Atchison 202.225.2301

Washington, D.C. – Today, the U.S. Senate passed Congressman Tim Murphy’s (PA-18) Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act, included in the 21st Century Cures healthcare reform package. The bill passed 94-5, and now heads to the President’s desk to be signed into law.  

Congressman Murphy, who led the multi-year effort to reform the nation’s failing mental health care system after the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary school, released the following statement:

“This historic vote is one of the rare moments in Congress where members can say with confidence their vote to pass these reforms will indeed save lives. We are ending the era of stigma surrounding mental illness and focusing on delivering treatment before tragedy. By bringing research, treatments and cures into the 21st Century, we are finally breaking down the wall between physical health and mental health. 

“As we approach the anniversary of Sandy Hook, I’m deeply moved that the House and Senate voted to include the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act in the 21st Century Cures bill because it was this very tragedy that motivated my relentless effort to fix the patchwork of antiquated programs and ineffective policies to get care to those in psychiatric crisis.

“Many doubted we would make it this far, but here we are… and we’re still not done. I will continue advancing reforms so none remain in the shadows because we’ve set our eyes on one goal: to fix our nation’s broken mental health system so it works for all. 

“We traveled to every corner of this nation, listening to doctors, psychologists and psychiatrists, experts and advocates, and most importantly patients, consumers and their families. 

“Through congressional hearings and an in-depth investigation, we discovered the abhorrent, and at times fatal, disconnect between 112 federal agencies who are assigned to treat the mentally ill. We exposed a $130 billion dollar investment in a system that has done little but watch the rates of homelessness, incarceration, suicide and drug overdose deaths soar. We came together, across party lines, and went to work. Today, we have passed legislation that will save lives. 

“A special note of thanks to Chairman Fred Upton for his steadfast leadership on Energy and Commerce and dedication to seeing H.R. 2646, the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act move forward, and for his tremendous medical innovation bill, the 21st Century Cures Act. 

“I’m deeply grateful to Texas Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, who teamed up with me on our original bill. Her conviction and determination, and applying her experience as a psychiatric nurse, proved instrumental in championing the cause that someone in crisis should get treatment in a hospital and not locked up in a jail cell. It is largely due to her efforts that we made it to the finish line.

“Without the commitment from House Speaker Paul Ryan we wouldn’t be here today. In his first days as Speaker of the House, he pledged his support for the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act. It was his leadership and determination that kept us moving forward to ensure the House would take action on the way we treat the mentally ill in this nation.

“To all of my colleagues in Congress who spoke up, stepped up, and teamed up with our efforts to end the mental health crisis in America: Thank you.

“Lastly, to every family member, to the tens of thousands who reached out to me, to those who stepped forward to share their story and be a voice for change, my deepest gratitude for your courageous stand to help families in mental health crisis.” 

For a full list of the provisions included in the final bill, click here.

A review of the bill by the New York Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services, Inc., whose members opposed Murphy’s legislation.  

NYAPRS Note: After almost 4 years of deliberation and often contentious debate, the House has approved “21st Century Cures Act” legislation that features a lengthy section entitled “Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Reform Act of 2016.”

There are a number of very positive advances here, especially as regards holding the line on preserving protection and advocacy and HIPAA rights protections while advancing criminal justice, parity, workforce and child, youth and school based mental health initiatives.   

However, there are some measures here that implicitly threaten to reverse course and potentially move us back from the recovery and rehabilitation agenda that SAMHSA and our movement and field have worked so hard and for so long to advance.

Elevating and integrating mental health policy and service initiatives within the federal government sounds very positive….but will that agenda remain prominent in a design where SAMHSA is absorbed within the greater Health and Human Service agency bureaucracy?

It’s critical that we make a front and center commitment to ratchet up the help we provide to individuals and families in crisis and to offer many more robust alternatives to the intolerable numbers of our community who live on the streets or in jails and prisons. But these must not be achieved at the expense of the groundbreaking advances we have made over the past 5 decades.

There’s a lot of mention here of ‘evidence based practice’ and ‘clinical focus’ that can easily be read as dismissing the newer under-researched recovery and peer practices and defaulting to a solely reductionist illness, medication and hospitalization based paradigm.

There are an extraordinary number of evaluations, reports and oversight measures over SAMHSA that appear to come from some folks out there who want to rein in the recovery, rights and consumer movements, regarding them as antithetical to the challenges experienced by the ‘most needy.’ This narrative comes from the same folks who, in their endless zeal for more court orders, more admissions and less rights and privacy protections, are either ignorant of or ignore all of the community innovations we have or are developing that will remain un or underfunded because more scarce public dollars will now go to more, costly AOT and inpatient services.

And there’s hardly any mention of the social determinants that are crucial factors to advancing health or relapse prevention, like employment, economic self-sufficiency and housing.

So, there’re a number of good things in this bill but some very real cautions too. The bill will pass the Senate and, ultimately that’s for the good, because who knows what a 2017 mental health reform bill could contain?

In any event, it will be up to each of us to ensure that the agenda championed by SAMHSA and the recovery community not be disrupted or diminished as we head into a different federal government structure and focus….and that we add to rather than subtract from that great agenda.


NYAPRS Summary of Key Mental Health Provisions

within the ‘21st Century Cures Act’ 

Federal Mental Health Agency Changes

While preserving SAMHSA, the bill moves the current duties of the SAMHSA Administrator to the new post of Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Use, seen by some as an ‘elevated’ position for behavioral health policy.

It also takes a number of steps to move the agency to a more ‘evidence based’ and ‘clinical’ focus, which is the specific charge of a new Chief Medical Officer post and the primary intent of a number of new planning and evaluation requirements, including a biennial report to Congress.

The bill also creates a National Mental Health and Substance Use Policy Laboratory (NMHSUPL) within SAMHSA to “promote evidence-based practices and service delivery models”, which will be shared with states, local communities, nonprofit entities, and other stakeholders.

The bill creates an Inter-Departmental Serious Mental Illness Coordinating Committee to better coordinate mental health services for people with serious mental health conditions amongst adults and children. The committee is made up of HHS, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the Department of Justice (DOJ), VA, DOD, HUD, the Department of Education, DOL, and the Social Security Administration (SSA), as well as patients, health care providers, researchers, a judge, and a law enforcement officer.

The bill directs CMS to provide states with “opportunities to design innovative service delivery systems to improve care for individuals with serious mental illness or serious emotional disturbance.”

 Protection and Advocacy Organizations

The bill preserves in full the focus and duties of the nation’s Protection and Advocacy agencies, which have long played a critical role in protecting and advocating for the human and civil rights of people with serious mental health conditions, as well as investigating reports of abuse and neglect in places that either provide care or treat individuals with those conditions.

It authorizes a review by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) of P&A programs carried out by states and private, non-profit organizations and implements an independent grievance procedure for complaints.

 Medicaid Reimbursement for Institution for Mental Diseases (IMD)

While groups like NYAPRS opposed previous legislative proposals to extend Medicaid to pay for state and psychiatric hospital services instead of expanding the range of community crisis, prevention and recovery services, this policy is already in the process of being implemented….not via federal legislation but by a regulatory change approved under the Obama Administration. As a result, Medicaid managed care plans have been authorized to pay for up to 15 day inpatient stays per month in those facilities.

This legislation simply directs CMS to conduct a study and report on the implementation of this policy.

 Health Information Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)

The bill outlines the need for clarity around HIPAA protections, but rejects previous efforts to add exemptions to the law.

It requires HHS to issue final regulations within 1 year to clarify circumstances in which a health care provider may share protected health information

And it adds funding for the creation of training and educational programs to educate health care providers and regulatory compliance staff around the exact limitations and permissions available under current legislation.

 Assisted Outpatient Treatment

In late 2015, Congress authorized a number of pilot programs to advance and evaluate the increased use of court mandated outpatient treatment (often called ‘Assisted’ Outpatient Treatment). The ‘Cures Bill” extends and funds the pilots out several years more to 2022.

The bill does not tie state mental health block funding to expanding the use of outpatient treatment orders, as originally proposed.

 Peer Support Specialists

The bill authorizes a study and Congressional report of SAMHSA funded peer specialist programs in states that receive SAMHSA grants that looks at hours of formal work or volunteer experience, types of peer support specialist exams and codes of ethics required for such programs and recommended skill sets and requirements for continuing education.

Happily, it does not engage Congress in establishing national credentialing, licensing or program standards (at least, at this time).

 Grants: The bill creates, re-authorizes and/or increases funding for numerous critically important initiatives, including:

Treatment and Recovery for Homeless Individuals

Jail Diversion Programs

Promoting Integration of Primary and Behavioral Health Care

Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Program 

Connecting Individuals and Families with Care

Strengthening Community Crisis Response Systems

Suicide Prevention

Mental Health Awareness Training Grants

Evidence-Based Practices for Older Adults

National Violent Death Reporting System

Assertive Community Treatment teams, evaluation

Sober Truth on Preventing Underage Drinking Reauthorization 

Same Day Coverage

The bill permits same day reimbursement for services delivered by both mental health and primary care practitioners

 Enhanced Compliance with Mental Health Parity Requirements

The bill requires various federal agencies to

release guidance on requirements to comply with parity law

conduct audits of health plans that have violated parity laws 5 times.

issue new guidance to health plans

convene a public meeting to produce an action plan for improved federal and state coordination relative parity law enforcement

report on federal investigations on any serious parity enforcement violations

provide a review of how the various federal and state agencies responsible for enforcing mental health parity requirements have improved enforcement in line

 Criminal Justice

Encourages the use of federally funded law enforcement, policing and fire prevention grants to create or expand mental health response and corrections programs, including police crisis intervention teams, specialized mental health response training, including crisis de-escalation, training first responders and paramedics on best practices for responding to mental health emergencies, including crisis de-escalation.

Encourages the creation of Drug and Mental Health Court pilot programs

Encourages the creation and deployment of behavioral health risk and needs assessments for mentally ill individuals in the criminal justice system.

the operation of Forensic Assertive Community Treatment (FACT) Initiatives.

use reentry demonstration project grant funds for the provision and coordination of mental health treatment and transitional services (including housing) for individuals re-entering society with mental illness, substance abuse problems, or a chronic homelessness

Requires mental health crisis and response training programs for members of each of the Federal Uniformed Services.

Creates a National Criminal Justice and Mental Health Training and Technical Assistance Center

Requires a report to Congress detailing the federal, state, and local costs of imprisonment for individuals with serious mental illness, including the number and types of crimes committed by mentally ill individuals.

Authorizes funding for prison and jail-based programs, including transitional and re-entry programs that reduce the likelihood of recidivism when a mentally-ill offender is released.

Authorizes resources for expanded law enforcement training activities, providing more officers with a basic understanding of the issues involved when responding situations with individuals with mental health crises.

requires a report detailing the practices that federal first responders, tactical units, and corrections officers are trained to use in responding to individuals with mental illness, procedures to appropriately respond to incidents, the application of evidence-based practices in criminal justice settings, and recommendations on how the Department of Justice can improve information sharing and dissemination of best practices.

 Strengthening the Health Care Workforce

Funds grants to institutions of higher education or accredited professional training programs to support the recruitment and education of mental health care providers

Uses existing mental and Substance Use Disorders Workforce grants for medical residents, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, health service psychologists, and social workers to provide mental and substance use disorder services in underserved community-based settings and programs for paraprofessionals that emphasize the role of the family and the lived experience of the consumer and family-paraprofessional partnerships.

Codifies into law the Minority Fellowship Program to increase the number of professionals who provide mental or substance use disorder services to underserved, minority populations, and to improve the quality of mental and substance use disorder prevention and treatment for ethnic minorities.

 Mental Health on Campus Improvement

Authorizes existing funds to be used to increase awareness and training to respond effectively to students with mental health and substance use disorders, to provide outreach to administer voluntary screenings and assessments to students, to enhance networks with health care providers who treat mental health and substance use disorders, and to provide direct mental health services.

Establishes an interagency working group to discuss mental and behavioral health on college campuses and to promote federal agency collaboration to support innovations in mental health services and supports for students on college and university campuses

Convenes an interagency, public-private sector work group to plan, establish, and begin coordinating and evaluating a targeted, public-education campaign to focus on mental and behavioral health on the campuses of institutions of higher education.

 Strengthening Mental and Substance Use Disorder Care for Women, Children, and Adolescents

Reauthorizes and updates programs to provide comprehensive community mental health services to children with SED.

Increasing Access to Pediatric Mental Health Care

Substance Use Disorder Treatment and Early Intervention Services for Children and


Children’s Recovery from Trauma

Reauthorizes the National Child Traumatic Stress Initiative (NCTSI)

Screening and Treatment for Maternal Depression

Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Promotion, Intervention, and Treatment

Establishes a grant program to develop, maintain, or enhance mental health prevention, intervention, and treatment programs for infants and children at significant risk of developing or showing early signs of mental disorders, including SED, or social or emotional disability.


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.