Massachusetts Senate approves sweeping mental health bill

BOSTON (AP) – The Massachusetts Senate on Wednesday unanimously approved a bill that would ensure Massachusetts residents are eligible for annual mental health exams at no cost – like annual physical exams.

The sweeping bill, which passed 39 to 0, would also create an online portal to ease the transition from emergency care to long-term care; establish an expert panel to help resolve barriers to caring for children with complex behavioral health needs who end up in emergency rooms; and dedicate $ 122 million to support nearly 2,000 behavioral professionals.

“This investment is absolutely essential. It’s a game changer. It includes the retention and recruiting we need to get the workforce we need, where we need it, ”Democratic Senator Julian Cyr said during the debate. .

The legislation would enforce existing mental health parity laws, which aim to ensure that insurance coverage for mental health care is equal to insurance coverage for other medical conditions.

The purpose of the bill is to create a more functional and transformed mental health care system, Cyr said.

“This legislation builds stronger mental health care by advancing the implementation of parity and other insurance reforms, supporting our mental health workforce and doing all we can to remove barriers to care. and make mental health care more accessible, ”he added.

The bill would be based in part on $ 400 million in federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act.

Although the concept of mental health parity has been codified in federal and state laws for decades, enforcement has been uneven, with patients often denied coverage for mental health treatment, advocates say.

“It is a sad, pathetic myth to say that we have parity” in Massachusetts, Democratic state senator Mark Montigny said during the debate.

The proposal would partially solve the enforcement problem by allowing the Insurance Division to receive and investigate gender complaints more quickly.

The bill is an updated version of legislation approved by the Senate last year. He is now heading to Massachusetts House for examination.

Another problem the bill would address is what is known as emergency boarding or “emergency boarding”. This is what happens when adults or children experiencing a mental health crisis seek help in a hospital emergency room.

If they are ultimately to be admitted to an inpatient psychiatric unit, the wait can last for days or weeks. In the meantime, the person seeking help often has to wait in the emergency room, receiving little or no psychiatric care.

The bill would solve the problem by creating an online portal with real-time data to help healthcare providers find open beds more easily, requiring hospital emergency departments to have a trained clinician. in Behavioral Health to assess patients seeking mental health care during all hours of operation. , and ordering the State Office of the Children’s Advocate to produce an annual report on the emergency boarding school for children.

The legislation would also reimburse mental health care providers more equitably, create a standard release form, eliminate insurance providers’ prior authorization requirements for acute mental health treatment, encourage health facilities to expand more emergency psychiatric services and increase access to mental health care in more geographically isolated areas.

During the debate, Senators passed an amendment that would create a 988 emergency hotline to provide emergency response services and coordination of emergency care to people calling the 988 hotline designated by the federal government for suicide prevention and behavioral health.

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