House group unveils bipartisan mental health, addiction legislative plan

Sprawling agenda includes 66 bipartisan bills from 144 lawmakers

The broad legislative agenda is spearheaded by the Bipartisan Addiction and Mental Health Task Force co-chaired by Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, D-N.H. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The broad legislative agenda is spearheaded by the Bipartisan Addiction and Mental Health Task Force co-chaired by Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, D-N.H. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 29, 2021 at 9:37am

A bipartisan group of 144 House lawmakers plans to unveil their agenda Wednesday for expanding access to mental health care and combating the growing drug epidemic after overdose deaths hit new highs, CQ Roll Call has learned first exclusively.

The group plans to announce its agenda of 66 bills and one resolution during a midday Wednesday news conference. The 48-page bipartisan blueprint outlining the group's legislative goals includes 12 policy subcategories including prevention, treatment, rural and underserved communities, workforce development, first responders, interdiction, children and families, veterans, prescribing, education, health care access and health parity.

The release of the agenda comes after progress in tackling the drug epidemic ground to a halt during the pandemic.

Over 95,000 people died from drug overdoses in the 12-month period ending in February 2021, the highest ever recorded in a year, according to preliminary Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. A separate study released last week by the National Institute on Drug Abuse showed that methamphetamine-involved overdose deaths almost tripled from 2015 to 2019.

It also comes as the pandemic has highlighted a number of health disparities in various communities. A National Institutes of Health-supported study published this month showed a 38 percent increase in opioid overdose deaths among non-Hispanic Black individuals in four states from 2018 to 2019. The study of deaths in New York, Massachusetts, Kentucky and Ohio saw opioid overdose deaths for other racial and ethnic groups stay flat or decrease during this time.

An aide for House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer declined to make any calendar announcements on when a package would move but said leaders support the work on mental health and addiction.

The bipartisan agenda is spearheaded by the Bipartisan Addiction and Mental Health Task Force formed this year by Reps. Ann McLane Kuster, D-N.H., Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., David Trone, D-Md., and Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash.

The four lawmakers formed the task force by combining and expanding two narrower caucuses focused on opioid addiction to encompass mental health and other drug threats.

Series of bipartisan efforts

Congress has enacted multiple laws to fund prevention and expand treatment of substance use and mental health disorders in recent years.

Previous iterations of the former groups’ agenda formed a basis for material in a 2016 law known as the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, or CARA, and a 2018 opioid law.

Meanwhile, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration announced Tuesday that it would distribute $825 million from the fiscal 2021 omnibus appropriations law to 231 community mental health centers across the country.

The swath of legislation falls under the jurisdiction of multiple committees, though most of the legislation is overseen by the Energy and Commerce or the Judiciary committees. But the agenda also touches on policies under the Ways and Means; Education and Labor; Armed Services; Veterans Affairs; and Oversight and Reform committees.

Details

The bills in the new bipartisan agenda are in different stages of the legislative process and have varying numbers of co-sponsors.

Among the bills is one from Trone and Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., that would create a task force to help prevent mental health crises caused by public health emergencies and craft a national strategy based on the impact of the pandemic.

Another by Reps. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., and John Katko, R-N.Y., would ensure Medicare coverage of marriage and family therapists and mental health counselors. The bill would not apply to the skilled nursing facility's prospective payment system. It has 42 co-sponsors.

Legislation by Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-Del., would establish two grant programs related to maternal mental health and substance use with a focus on minority groups. It has 50 co-sponsors.

Another bill from Reps. Chrissy Houlahan, D-Pa., and Guy Reschenthaler, R-Pa., would limit copayments for mental health outpatient visits under TRICARE, the military’s health care program. It has four co-sponsors.

Legislation by Reps. Scott Peters, D-Calif., and John Curtis, R-Utah, would designate methamphetamine as an emerging drug threat and would direct the Office of National Drug Control Policy to implement a plan to address the issue. It is already awaiting floor action.

Another bill would authorize grants for law enforcement and corrections agencies to receive mental health crisis training. It is awaiting action from the House Judiciary Committee.

And a bill from Reps. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., and David B. McKinley, R-W.Va., would authorize a 10 percent set-aside for recovery support within the Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Block Grant program. It has four co-sponsors and mirrors language in the president’s budget and House Labor-HHS-Education spending bill.

The agenda also includes legislation that has passed at least one chamber.

That includes a House-passed bill from Reps. Scott Peters, D-Calif., Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., Ted Deutch, D-Fla., and Fitzpatrick that would fund grants to establish and implement evidence-based suicide awareness and prevention training policies. Another House-passed bill by Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J., and Katko would establish programs to address racial inequalities in mental health.

The agenda also includes a bill by Reps. Susan Wild, D-Pa., Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., Judy Chu, D-Calif., and McKinley that has 126 co-sponsors. It would help prevent and reduce mental health conditions and suicide among health care workers. A similar version of the bill passed the Senate by voice vote.

The Senate Finance Committee has also been making inroads into a bipartisan mental health package.

Last week, Finance Chair Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and ranking member Richard M. Burr, R-N.C., sent a letter to stakeholders seeking input for policies related to access to care, behavioral workforce, telehealth, health parity and children’s mental health.

A Senate Democratic aide said the goal is to develop the proposal by year’s end with the hopes of realistically passing legislation next year.