Senator Collins Questions Experts on Lack of Access to Mental Health Services at Senate HELP Hearing

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WASHINGTON, D.C.—U.S. Senator Susan Collins questioned experts this morning regarding the current lack of access to mental health services at a hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. The hearing, titled, “Improving the Federal Response to Challenges in Mental Health Care in America” examined how the federal government can help patients, health care providers, communities, and states address mental health issues. 
 
During the hearing, Senator Collins underscored that, “particularly in rural states like Maine, patients with serious mental illness all too often lack access to the care that they need,” and that “at times, federal policies exacerbate the problem of access.” Senator Collins continued, stating that, “we still don’t treat mental illness the same way we treat physical illness in this country, from the perspective of federal reimbursement policies and programs, which is pretty stunning in this day and age.”
 
One significant barrier to timely access to mental health care is a provision in the Medicaid statute that prohibits federal matching payments to private psychiatric hospitals for Medicaid patients ages 21 to 64.  Last year, Senator Collins cosponsored the Improving Access to Emergency Psychiatric Care Act. This bipartisan legislation, which was signed into law on December 11, 2015, extends a demonstration project allowing Medicaid to provide matching funds to 12 states, including Maine, to reimburse for the treatment of severely mentally ill individuals between the ages of 21 and 64 at psychiatric hospitals with more than sixteen beds.  Maine has seen promising results under the program.
 
Senator Collins asked Dr. Brian Hepburn, the Executive Director of the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors, “how the restrictions on Medicaid funding to freestanding psychiatric hospitals, affect access to care?”
 
Dr. Hepburn agreed with Senator Collins that access to mental health care is a major issue.  He noted that freestanding psychiatric hospitals have about the same cost-per-episode as acute general hospital psychiatric units, and there is no substantial financial or clinical reason for the current Medicaid exclusion.  He also explained that increasing the use of technology could help connect mental health services with individuals in rural areas.
 
Senator Collins is also an original cosponsor of the Mental Health Reform Act, which would reform our country's mental health system to strengthen research and improve access to effective and evidence-based treatments for individuals with serious mental illness.