Minnesota Democrat Al Franken has been positioning himself as one of the Senate’s key voices on mental-health care, following in the legacy of his late friend and predecessor, Sen. Paul Wellstone.
The first-term senator has spent years pushing for full implementation of a 2008 mental-health parity law (PL 110-343) that bears Wellstone’s name, among other priorities. And he’s already sponsoring two bills related to mental-health care in the new Congress, both of which he introduced last week.
Both measures come at a time when the nation’s mental-health system is attracting public and congressional attention in the wake of December’s deadly shooting at a Connecticut elementary school.
Franken said in a Jan. 31 interview he wants to take care not to stigmatize mental illness, noting that most people with mental illness are no more violent than the general population and are more often victims. But he thinks there is a renewed interest in mental-health issues, as well as an understanding of where the needs lie.
“It seems like there’s a lot of things regarding law enforcement and mental health that we got wrong ... that we can build on some of the stuff we’ve done to address that,” he said.
Franken said his interest in mental-health issues stems partly from family history, and he noted that he has written a couple of movies about alcoholism, including co-writing “When a Man Loves a Woman.” An ad released during his Senate campaign featured his wife describing her battle with alcohol dependency.
He also noted that Wellstone, the Minnesota Democrat who died in a plane crash in 2002 while running for a third term in the Senate, was a champion for mental health.
“I think that’s part of his legacy, and it, you know, to some degree falls to me to keep that going,” he said.
Franken introduced a bill (S 195) Jan. 31 that is designed to increase students’ access to mental-health services in schools, even as budget constraints may be causing states to pull back those resources. Although the American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of one school counselor for every 250 students, a summary provided by Franken’s office noted that the national average was one per every 471 students in the 2010-11 school year.
Across the Capitol, a spokesman for Rep. Grace F. Napolitano said the California Democrat is gathering original co-sponsors for the House version of the bill and plans to introduce it this week. Napolitano, who co-chairs the Congressional Mental Health Caucus, has introduced the legislation in multiple Congresses, but it has lacked a Senate companion since 2009 with the death of Massachusetts Democrat Edward M. Kennedy.
According to the summary, the bill would set up a grant program for schools that partner with organizations in their communities to expand students’ access to mental-health resources, with requirements for reporting data. The grants would also support training programs in schools to help staff, families and other community members spot signs of mental-health issues and refer students to services.
The measure would authorize $200 million in grants each year over a five-year period, the summary said, with up to $1 million available for eligible schools each grant year based on student population size.
In an interview earlier in January, Napolitano said one challenge for moving forward on mental-health legislation is the potential for proposals to get bogged down in an effort to find funding. But Franken expressed optimism that lawmakers may be able to overcome that issue.
“I think that it’s one of these things that we realize it would be penny-wise and pound-foolish not to invest in,” he said.
Democrats Max Baucus of Montana and Richard J. Durbin of Illinois are original co-sponsors of the Senate bill.
Also last week, Franken introduced legislation (S 162) to reauthorize for five years a 2004 law (PL 108-414) that established a grant program to support mental-health courts and other collaborative programs between the criminal-justice and mental-health systems. Franken said the current law is working, but he maintained that there are still “way too many” people in prison with mental-health conditions, many of whom he said could be better served by treatment programs.
His bill would continue support for crisis intervention teams as well as mental-health courts, which he said can help individuals avoid becoming repeat offenders and keep them out of prison.
“Basically, if someone’s arrested and the prosecutor and the defense attorney and the police and the judge and mental-health professionals agree that this person should be tried in mental-health court and not in the regular court, then he or she will be,” he said. “Instead of going to prison, they can be given treatment.”
Beyond the current programs, Franken’s bill would authorize funding for veterans treatment courts that serve veterans with mental-health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder or substance addiction who are arrested, according to a summary. It also would give more control over eligibility to local officials and provide support for curricula development for police academies and orientations, among other provisions.
Franken introduced the measure on Jan. 28 with support from 18 original bipartisan co-sponsors. Florida Republican Rich Nugent, a former sheriff, introduced the House version (HR 401) on Jan. 23 with nine co-sponsors split between both parties.
“I don’t think this reauthorization is going to be hard at all,” Franken said.