As Americans celebrate the holiday season, millions of families will have an empty chair at the table for a relative who is lost in our failed mental health system or is one of the more than 80,000 people with mental illnesses who died this year. These deaths are tragically unique in our public health system for two reasons: They are continually increasing in number yet fully preventable.
In the last decade there has been a decrease in the mortality rates for heart disease, stroke, HIV/AIDs, car accidents and cancer. Yet, during the same time frame the rates for suicide have increased and since 2000 the rates for drug overdoses has increased 137 percent, including a 200 percent increase in the rate of overdose deaths involving opioids.
This increase comes despite the federal government spending $130 billion on mental health alone. These Americans are experiencing a serious mental illness, a brain disease, but they are also suffering from failed federal policies that stop them from getting treatment: Medicaid rules that say you can't see two doctors in the same day or go into a psychiatric hospital with more than 16 beds; privacy rules that block families from helping; and perverse laws that focus on the right to be sick instead of the right to be well.
In 2016, Congress must prioritize reforming our mental health system and pass the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act (HR 2646), which I introduced earlier this year. The legislation would reform and reorganize the lead federal agency responsible for improving the nation's mental health and substance use treatment and prevention system, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Agency (SAMHSA), which is in dire need of reorganization.
SAMHSA has not been reauthorized since President Clinton was in office, does not employ a single psychiatrist, and spends billions of tax payer dollars on grant programs that the Government Accountability Office found to be uncoordinated and lacking requirements that the funds be allocated to evidenced-based programs. My legislation would establish an Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders, who would be required to be a medical professional. It would also increase accountability for how mental health dollars are spent and require funds to go to evidence-based programs and practices.
Numerous studies have shown that including family members and caregivers in the treatment of patients with serious mental illness improves the outcomes for that patient. However, federal privacy rules, including HIPAA, frequently prohibit that involvement and block the best possible treatment for the patient. My bill will allow for compassionate communication between a doctor and a caregiver of someone with a serious mental illness to facilitate treatment.
The Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act also makes changes to antiquated Medicaid billing policies so that a patient with a physical health condition and a behavioral health condition can see a primary care doctor and a psychiatrist on the same day. In addition, it modifies the arbitrary limitation that prohibits federal Medicaid dollars from going to a psychiatric hospital with more than 16 beds.
Compassion should be our guide in order to stop the suffering. Congress must stop delaying, and our nation must stop ignoring those who are hopelessly caught in a system that cycles those with serious mental illness between emergency rooms, jails, prisons and homeless shelters. This year let us give our families a gift of help. Because where there is no help, there is no hope.
Tim Murphy represents Pennsylvania's 18th congressional district. Thinking of submitting an op-ed to the Washington Examiner? Be sure to read our guidelines on submissions.