Legislation with Mental Health Reforms, Opioid Prevention Funding Heads to Senate

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Capitol Building U.S. Congress

WASHINGTON — A major medical innovation bill that could help children and families with mental health reforms and funding to fight opioid addiction is headed to the U.S. Senate.

The $6.3 billion bill, the 21st Century Cures Act, is largely devoted to changing the way medical drugs and devices are approved in the United States. But various other provisions hitched a ride on the bill the House approved Wednesday by a vote of 392-26.

The Senate is expected to consider the legislation next week, and the White House has weighed in with support for it.

However, the legislation does not include a top priority for many child welfare groups: a version of the Family First Prevention Services Act (HR 5456, S 3065), legislation that would give states more flexibility to use foster care funding to keep families together, including by paying for substance use treatment for parents.

The Family First Act was included in a version of the 21st Century Cures Act released last week, but was struck from the final version during negotiations because of some lawmakers’ concerns about its effect on states finances and foster care services, public health lobbyists said.

Because the Family First Act is no longer attached to a bill that is moving forward, it almost certainly will not pass this year and would have to be reintroduced in the new Congress.

One last shot for the Family First Act could come through the spending package Congress must pass before adjourning for the year, said the children's lobbying group First Focus.

“We’re really getting down to the wire for the Family First Act,” said Bruce Lesley, president of the First Focus Campaign for Children, in a statement. “Congress must act now to ensure this bill is attached to the continuing resolution for the sake of the 428,000 kids in foster care.”

Mental health, drug prevention and treatment

The bill does includes reforms from House and Senate mental health bills, such as provisions that would:

  • require the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to consult with stakeholders about how to improve community-based mental health services for children with serious emotional disturbances;
  • reauthorize the National Child Traumatic Stress Initiative; and
  • establish a grant program for states to create or improve maternal depression screening and treatment programs for women who are pregnant or up to 12 months postpartum.

“With the House’s strong support of these critical reforms, we’re one step closer to delivering meaningful reforms to families in mental health crisis. We have worked to reduce stigma around this important issue, and let folks know it’s okay to ask for help,” said House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-Michigan, and Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pennsylvania, who sponsored a mental health reform bill in the House that is the basis for many of the reforms, in a news release.

Democrats also applauded the mental health provisions. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, said he will work to ensure passage of the 21st Century Cures Act in the Senate, where he also has pushed for mental health reform in recent years.

“I’d heard too many devastating stories of people struggling with serious mental illness and addiction whose lives were forever changed because they couldn’t get the care they need. I’d seen up close the heartbreak and frustration that families suffered trying to find care for a loved one — care that seemed impossible to find and even harder to pay for,” Murphy said in a news release.

The legislation also includes $1 billion during the next two years to prevent opioid abuse and provide treatment.

Earlier this year, lawmakers passed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) to address opioid addiction, despite some Democrats’ concerns that the bill authorizes new programs but does not include enough funding to make good on the bill’s potential.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-New Hampshire, a critic of the lack of funding in CARA, said the 21st Century Cures Act takes a step in the right direction.

“This time last year, I introduced legislation that would immediately provide emergency funds to law enforcement and providers on the frontlines focused on treatment and recovery; now, finally, Congress is moving forward. I’m also relieved that this bill ensures that funding will be directed to the areas of the country with the most need. Those on the frontlines have waited long enough for Congress to take this epidemic seriously,” Shaheen said in a news release.

This story has been updated.