Mental health and how the mentally ill are cared for in the U.S. has been a contentious issue among advocates for quite some time. From health insurance to provider care and availability of treatment, including among vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, the problem continues to raise the ire of those looking for a change for the better.
While advocates want to pass meaningful mental health reform, both sides can never seem to agree on the details. The reason – proposed mental health laws aimed at easing access to services have critics fearing they would infringe on patients’ freedom and right to privacy.
The result – nothing has yet to be accomplished. Long-stalled federal legislation aimed at reforming the mental health care system is likely to come before Congress in the fall, but given the questions about patients’ rights and privacy, the chance of passing a meaningful measure is already under the threat of being derailed.
Pressured to act after a series of mass shootings, House and Senate lawmakers have proposed bills that would improve federal oversight and give patients more access to services. The Senate version, called the Mental Health Reform Act, was introduced Aug. 4 by Sens. Bill Cassidy, R-La., and Chris Murphy, D-Conn. Meanwhile, Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., introduced the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act into the House in June.
While reform advocates are pleased to have any talk of mental health reform on Capitol Hill, they have been hesitant to raise issues with the proposals – mostly because the plans have their critics. Some of the more outspoken critics point to portions of the legislations that would loosen the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act – a 1996 measure known as HIPAA, intended to ensure patient privacy.
Their belief is that easing the privacy restrictions currently in place would enable family members to access dates and times of a loved one’s medical visits as well as information about medications they are taking so they can help in caregiving.
Furthermore, according to critics, the proposals would also reform federal regulations that prevent doctors from accessing information about whether their patients have a mental illness or substance abuse disorder. Put in place in 1972, those rules were created to keep doctors from discriminating against patients seeking treatment. However, critics contend that more recent laws prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities have made them obsolete.
Flagging incentives for what critics call “assisted outpatient treatment,” the new laws would allegedly allow judges to order someone with a serious mental illness – including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder – to follow a specified treatment plan that may include medication. Additionally, the House bill would reward states that implement these treatment programs with a 2 percent block grant, while the Senate bill mentions court-ordered treatment only in the form of a pilot program.
Those highly in favor of changes to the privacy laws as well as to the need for outpatient assisted treatment, such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the country’s largest organization representing people living with serious mental illness stress an important fact. According to NAMI, sometimes people with a serious mental illness do not fully recognize they need treatment or that they have an illness. And, they say family members who are responsible for their care cannot access the information they need to help them, which can delay or hinder their chance of getting treatment.
As with most measures before Congress, critics and advocates will argue their case. What happens next is entirely in the hands of those senators and congressmen voting for or against the proposed legislation.
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Do you believe treating the mentally ill is more important than their privacy and patient’s rights? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.