As the COVID-19 pandemic becomes more endemic in nature, policymakers are increasingly turning their attention to another underlying crisis in the U.S. — mental health, and a lack of services to meet the rising demand.
Lawmakers introduced draft legislation last month that aims to tackle the nation’s mental health workforce shortage. Subsequently, the House passed a separate bill that would infuse more mental health professionals into schools and increase access to mental health care for students.
That bill — called the Mental Health Matters Act — passed in a 220-205 vote, with one Republican joining all Democrats voting in favor of it.
Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Calif.), who sponsored the bill, noted that educators have often been on the frontlines of dealing with the ongoing youth mental health crisis. This was highlighted by U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy in a report and subsequent action plan released last year.
This dynamic has become especially strained given the rising rates of suicide, anxiety and depression, as well as gun violence among young people.
“Our schools do not have the specialized staff necessary to respond to the increased prevalence and complexity of students’ mental health needs,” DeSaulnier said in a statement. “Simply put, the Mental Health Matters Act delivers the resources students, educators and families need to improve their well-being.”
Additionally, the bill would provide grant programs to schools to bolster their mental health services and providers.
It would also seek to improve mental health parity, ensuring that mental health and substance abuse conditions are equal to coverage under insurance plans as physical conditions. The bill would place penalties on insurers that don’t comply with federal mental health parity requirements.
Some advocacy groups like the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and organizations like the American Psychiatric Association, touted the bill, noting that mental health parity would be integral to strengthening the nation’s mental health care infrastructure.
Still, the bill encountered pushback from House Republicans and certain industry groups who vocally opposed the bill. They argue that the provisions involving penalties would backfire and encourage insurers to drop mental health coverage entirely.
Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) argued that the bill “contains dangerous policy which would threaten access to critical workplace benefits.”
“Employers who offer mental health benefits under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) do so voluntarily,” Foxx said in a statement. “They should not be penalized for violating standards that are unclear and vague.”
Industry group ERISA Industry Committee (ERIC), meanwhile, argued the bill would increase costs and make it “harder for employers to provide benefits.”
A recent report from the nonpartisan federal agency Congressional Budget Office estimated that given the current number of violations of mental health parity rules (about 11 per year), penalty collections would amount to about $29 million in total between 2022 and 2032.
The bill now heads to the Senate, where Democrats hold a slim margin ahead of the upcoming midterm elections.