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  • Washington Highlights

    HELP, Ways and Means Hold Mental Health Hearings


    Allyson Perleoni, Director, Government Relations

    The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) and the House Ways and Means Committees both held hearings on addressing mental health needs in the United States.

    Senate HELP Committee Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.) opened the hearing on Feb. 1 titled “Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders: Responding to the Growing Crisis” by discussing recent pandemic-era trends in drug overdoses and added that mental health resources and the health workforce are stretched thin. “If we just keep stretching without taking action—something is going to break,” she stated. Murray also noted that the HELP Committee will work on legislation that covers suicide prevention, youth mental health, the opioid crisis, and breaking down barriers in mental health.

    Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), standing in for Ranking Member Richard Burr (R-N.C.), delivered opening remarks that largely focused on the mental health and suicide crisis in the youth population. She expressed a desire to work with other HELP Committee members to build a bipartisan “package that addresses these issues head on.”

    In a key exchange with Murray, Michelle Durham, MD, MPH, clinical associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Boston Medical Center, Boston University School of Medicine, was asked about the barriers that patients experience when accessing mental health care. Durham noted the lack of mental health care providers, stating that “when people want to go for care that they have to go to many different providers to get the treatment that they need.” She went on to say, “We need to stop siloing in healthcare in general and in mental health care, this distinction that our physical health is separated from our mental health.” Durham also emphasized access issues due to bed availability and insurance status.

    The Feb. 2 Ways and Means Committee hearing titled “America’s Mental Health Crisis” similarly highlighted the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health in the United States. Committee Chair Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.) opened the hearing by noting that though mental health needs were great prior to COVID-19, there is “no denying the pandemic has exacerbated the mental health crisis.” He continued, “This is a crisis on top of a crisis.” Neal also emphasized the importance of passing the AAMC-supported Pathway to Practice Training program proposed in the Build Back Better Act (H.R. 5376), noting that it “would help build a diverse physician base that receives the necessary training to appropriately care for the diversity of need across the nation. The growing mental health crisis only adds to the need for this crucial policy” [refer to Washington Highlights, Nov. 19, 2021].

    Ranking Member Kevin Brady (R-Texas) agreed that there is a mental health crisis in the United States and emphasized the need for permanent telehealth to address those needs. Brady called telehealth the “silver lining of the COVID pandemic” noting that in the first year of the pandemic “the national weekly average of telehealth users jumped from 13,000 to 1.7 million. ... We have seen telehealth work. It's saved countless lives of seniors and those facing dire mental health challenges. It's time to make this solution a permanent one.”

    In one key exchange, Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) asked witness Peggy Johnson, MD, chief of psychiatry at the Commonwealth Care Alliance, to elaborate on the utility of telehealth for mental health patients. Johnson replied that she felt that telehealth “saved” access to mental health care during the pandemic. Johnson explained that in the small rural town she is from in Texas there is an “absence of behavioral health care with the exception of telemedicine.” She also explained, “I think ... it would [be] a travesty to not continue with the allowances that have been granted in this emergency situation because I do think it would ... be a tremendous step backwards in terms of the access issue.”

    Both hearings continue bipartisan congressional efforts to address challenges related to access to mental health services. In November 2021, the AAMC sent a letter to Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Ranking Member Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) responding to their request for input on developing policy proposals and bipartisan legislation to address barriers to mental health care [refer to Washington Highlights, Nov. 19, 2021].