Senate passes legislation to strengthen mental health care resources

·3 min read

BOSTON — The state Senate has unanimously passed legislation that would strengthen the way residents receive mental health care and make sure that such care is available when needed.

The Mental Health ABC Act 2.0, which the Senate approved Nov. 17, will move to the House of Representatives. It partially relies on $400 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding.

“The Massachusetts Senate took vital strides toward transforming mental health care in Massachusetts,” state Sen. Julian Cyr, D- Truro, said in a statement issued by the Senate. “By unanimously passing the (bill) we affirm that mental health is just as essential as physical health and take a leap forward to ensure that all people in Massachusetts can access the mental health care they need and deserve."

The bill includes provisions for annual mental wellness exams and mental health parity, and addresses the so-called "emergency department boarding crisis," according to the statement.

“The idea that a person’s mental health is just as important as a person’s physical health is the cornerstone of this reform,” the statement said.

Jacqueline Lane, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Cape Cod & The Islands, said that although many people in the health care industry have come around to the idea that mental and physical wellness should be treated equally, there is still stigma attached to mental health care.

One part of your body affects another, and a person’s nervous system and brain are part of their body, noted Lane, who said that annual mental wellness exams would fill part of the need for more preventative mental health care.

Enforcing parity laws

The legislation also allows for the enforcement of parity laws, meaning that mental health conditions should be covered the same as other medical conditions by insurance companies.

According to the Senate statement, patients are often denied coverage for mental health services, so the act creates tools for enforcing mental health parity laws, including a system for the Division of Insurance to receive and investigate parity complaints.

The boarding crisis

According to a statement from the Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association last May, hospital emergency departments in Massachusetts were “boarding” 300 to 500 patients with behavioral health issues while they waited for a bed in a psychiatric unit to open.

Since the pandemic began, “ED boarding” in Massachusetts has increase by 400%, according to the Senate statement.

The act will address boarding by creating an online portal that helps health care providers find available beds, require an emergency department to always have a behavioral health clinician, and create a case resolution panel for children with complex behavioral issues.

Barriers to care

The act also aims to break down barriers to care, such as financial or cultural.

It would require coverage for same-day care to remove financial barriers and create a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner fellowship pilot program, which supports underserved populations.

It also looks at culturally competent care by identifying possible barriers in treating underserved populations, and reviewing access to culturally competent mental health care.

Lane said that the pandemic showed where health care was most lacking, since people of certain ages and ethnicities had higher death rates.

She also said that the pandemic caused people who otherwise thought of themselves as mentally stable to experience stress, anxiety, and depression.

If there was one silver lining in the pandemic, it was that people learned how fragile mental health truly is, Lane said.

She called the legislation a great first step at tackling some of the state’s mental health issues, but added that for the Cape’s specific problems, there were other issues that need to be addressed, including the housing crisis.

This story contains information from The Associated Press. Contact Asad Jung at ajung@capecodonline.com. Follow him on Twitter @asadjungcct

This article originally appeared on Cape Cod Times: massachusetts senate approves Mental Health ABC Act 2.0

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