Tonko hopes to streamline response to mental health, substance abuse crisis with new bill

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Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, is co-sponsoring legislation that would give the federal government more say over how mental health treatments are regulated and administered in all 50 states.

Previously, the federal government had a more hands-off approach to the treatment of mental illness and substance abuse. They would provide necessary funding for programs and protect the rights of individuals in both private and public spaces. However, the role of delegating what programs are available to the population is dictated by the state. This is why mental health services and regulations will differ from state to state and even county to county. 

While there are state and local government programs that address mental health and substance use disorders, each government body has different responses making it difficult to plan and create programs that meet the needs of their communities.

However, because of the year-long pandemic, joblessness and other struggles, there has been a significant spike in reported mental illness and substance use disorders. Paired with the financial deficit states face because of COVID-19, few states are capable of handling the increased demand for care. 

Tonko and the bill’s other co-sponsors justify the need for federal intervention based on their findings. “At the federal level, we find redundancy in programs across different agencies and a lack of strategic thinking to ensure our federal government moves in a unified direction. The result is state and local governments that struggle to create evidence-based programs that will meet their community’s needs and improve access to care.”

This legislation is in response to the growing number of millions of Americans that are struggling with mental illness and substance use disorders during the COVID-19 pandemic. Its goal is to address the need for coordinated, evidence-based behavioral health care programs at the federal level. 

This bill, H.R. 1385, would create an Interagency Coordinator for Behavioral Health to inventory currently disjointed federal programming and to develop a strategy for coordination across agencies to streamline the federal government’s approach to mental health and substance use disorders. The Interagency Coordinator is then tasked with identifying best practices for comprehensive mental health and substance use disorder care.

David Trone, D-Md., sponsored the bill, along with cosponsors Tonko and Reps. Tom Emmer, R-Minn.; Doris Matsui, D-Calif.; and Tony Cárdenas, D-Calif. introduced the Behavioral Health Coordination and Communication Act of 2021. 

“Millions of Americans have mental health and substance use disorders that have only been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s time that the federal government coordinate its efforts to ensure that these folks can access high-quality, effective care,” said Trone. “By coordinating our efforts, we will save time, resources, and taxpayer dollars while supporting those who need it most.”

On Aug. 14, 2020, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in their weekly report that during late June, over 40% of adults reported exhibiting a new symptom of a mental or behavioral health condition during the COVID-19 pandemic. 10.7% of respondents reported having seriously considered suicide in the 30 days before completing the survey. Out of this group, there were significantly more respondents aged 18–24 years, minority racial/ethnic groups, self-reported unpaid caregivers for adults, and essential workers. 

According to the CDC, the public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic should increase intervention and prevention efforts to address associated mental health conditions. Community-level efforts, including health communication strategies, should prioritize young adults, racial/ethnic minorities, essential workers, and unpaid adult caregivers.

“We know that the pandemic has taken a significant emotional toll on people. We cannot ignore the very real mental health challenges that this has had on our children, our frontline heroes, and our communities,” said Congressman Cárdenas. “As we continue to work to beat the virus, let us not neglect our mental health. There is no health without mental health.”

In previous years the federal government worked in partnership with the states to address mental health. The federal role in mental health according to Mental Health America includes regulating systems and providers, protecting the rights of consumers, providing funding for services, and supporting research and innovation. 

With the federal government’s control over legislation and regulation regarding mental health, the Behavioral Health Coordination and Communication Act of 2021 can be used to directly assist those in need. 

“As we continue to deal with the immense challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, we must meet this moment with a comprehensive health care strategy, prioritizing not only our physical well-being but the mental health of all Americans,” said Congresswoman Matsui. “That means directing federal resources towards our mental health infrastructure and making sure that the continuum of care is strong from government programs to providers and patients. The Behavioral Health Coordination and Communication Act will make crucial changes to streamline communication and disseminate accurate information to all corners of the nation.”