DiDomenico and Senate Colleagues Pass Mental Health Bill

Sen. DiDomenico Massachusetts Senate unanimously passed the Mental Health ABC Act, comprehensive legislation aimed at reforming the mental health care system in Massachusetts. Senate Bill 2519, An Act Addressing Barriers to Care for Mental Health, serves as the first step toward developing a more integrated system of mental health care delivery to better meet the needs of individuals and families.

“For too long, mental health has been an overlooked part of our health care system, leaving many Massachusetts residents without access to the critical services and treatment that they need,” said Assistant Majority Leader DiDomenico. “As we know, mental health is just as important as physical health, and I am proud of the steps my colleagues in the Senate and I have taken to remove barriers and increase parity in mental health care. I would like to especially thank Senate President Karen Spilka, who has made this legislation a top priority this session, and all my colleagues who played a role in crafting this crucial bill.”

Massachusetts residents have historically experienced difficulty accessing mental health services due to health inequities and persistent barriers to care-leaving many without the treatment they need and deserve. According to a 2018 report by the Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Massachusetts, over half of a representative sample of fully insured adults who sought mental health care services reported difficulty finding services.

The Mental Health ABC Act seeks to increase access by removing barriers to timely quality care, providing the state with more effective tools to enforce existing mental health parity laws, and investing in the mental and behavioral health workforce pipeline. The legislation builds on progress made through state mental health parity laws passed in 2000 and 2008, and the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 at the federal level.

The Mental Health ABC Act is driven by the recognition that mental health is just as important as physical health for every resident of the Commonwealth-and reflects the Senate’s overall goal of improving access to mental health care for all. The Senate has prioritized efforts in the 2019-2020 legislative session to improve the delivery of mental health services in the Commonwealth, and the Mental Health ABC Act builds on the these efforts by addressing issues related to mental health parity, workforce needs, and access to care.

The Mental Health ABC Act provides the state with better tools to implement and enforce mental health parity laws, which require that insurance coverage for mental health benefits be equal to and no more restrictive than coverage for physical health benefits. Mental health parity has been codified in federal and state law for decades, but enforcement of the law has been challenging.

As a result, inequities persist and patients are often denied coverage for mental health treatment that is just as critical to managing their health as treatment for conditions such as diabetes or heart disease. As such, this legislation includes quicker evaluation and resolution of parity complaints, greater reporting and oversight of insurance carriers’ processes and policies related to mental health care coverage, and penalties and alternative remedies for when an insurance company does not comply with the law.

This legislation also mandates coverage and eliminates prior authorization for mental health acute treatment for adults and children experiencing acute mental health crises, effectively placing treatment decisions in the hands of the treating clinician in consultation with the patient rather than an insurance company.

In an effort to address the mental health workforce crisis that often limits patient access to care, the bill creates a pilot program through the Department of Higher Education aimed at creating a workforce pipeline to encourage and support individuals from diverse backgrounds to work toward careers in mental health. In addition, the bill creates an interim licensure program for Licensed Mental Health Counselors so that they can be reimbursed by insurance for their services and be eligible for state and federal grant and loan forgiveness programs, increasing the number of licensed providers able to serve patients.

The bill also calls for an academic study conducted by the Office of Health Equity to review the availability of culturally competent mental health care providers within networks of both public and private health care payers, as well as to identify potential barriers to care for underserved cultural, ethnic and linguistic populations and the LGBTQ community. The bill further directs an interagency health equity team under the Office of Health Equity to improve access to, and the quality of, culturally competent mental health services.

The bill creates a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Fellowship Pilot Program in community health centers to offer additional support and training to psychiatric nurse practitioners who agree to work in community settings with underserved populations. The program will be designed to encourage these professionals to continue working in a community setting where mental health providers are sorely needed.

Currently, mental health and primary care providers are reimbursed at different rates for the same service. The bill seeks to level the playing field for reimbursement to mental health providers by requiring an equitable rate floor for evaluation and management services that is consistent with primary care.

The Mental Health ABC Act takes meaningful steps to improve access to care by prohibiting insurers from denying coverage for mental health services and primary care services solely because they were delivered on the same day in the same facility. This will remove a significant financial barrier to the integration of primary care and mental health.

Additionally, the bill requires emergency departments to have the capacity to evaluate and stabilize a person admitted with a mental health presentation at all times, and to refer them to appropriate treatment or inpatient admission.

This bill authorizes the DPH, the Department of Mental Health (DMH), and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to collaborate on authorizing three pilots for tele-behavioral health services in public high schools in the Commonwealth. This pilot is based on an existing and successful model between a hospital and several school districts in western Massachusetts.

Finally, the bill directs the DMH to consider factors that may present barriers to care-such as travel distance and access to transportation-when contracting for services in geographically isolated and rural communities.

The Mental Health ABC Act now moves to the House of Representatives for consideration.

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