Senate HELP Committee Holds Hearing on Federal Mental Health Programs

On March 23, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions held a hearing on federal mental health and substance use disorders programs titled “Strengthening Federal Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders Programs: Opportunities, Challenges, and Emerging Issues.” This served as a follow-up to the February 1 Committee Hearing “Mental Health and Substance Disorders: Responding to the Growing Crisis”. [refer to Washington Highlights, Feb. 4].

In her opening address, Committee Chair Patty Murray (D-WA) discussed the profound impact of the COVID-19 public health emergency on the nation’s collective mental health. Noting a sharp increase in overdose deaths attributed to drugs such as fentanyl, methamphetamine and cocaine, she emphasized the critical role mental health and drug use professionals play in providing life-saving care. Murray further noted that the pandemic has put the nation’s behavioral health staff under incredible stress, exacerbating provider shortages and limiting access to care. She expressed the committee’s intention to complete bipartisan legislation to reauthorize, improve and strengthen federal programs for the treatment of mental health disorders and substance use use. She concluded, “I look forward to hearing from our witnesses today about the steps we can take to support the efforts of those on the frontlines of our mental health and addiction crises.”

Committee ranking member Richard Burr (R-NC) stressed the role of social isolation in driving the country’s current mental health crisis. He noted that over the past two years, rates of anxiety, depression and emergency room visits related to mental illness have increased significantly among the country’s young people. Burr noted that since 2016, the committee has approved or re-approved over 40 different federal programs for the treatment of mental health disorders and substance use, and emphasized the need to evaluate and improve existing programs. He also stressed the importance of engaging local communities through public-private partnerships to find innovative solutions to the mental health crisis, saying: “Sometimes this requires thinking outside the box. We’ve seen communities pull together to find workable solutions during the pandemic – and we need the same spirit and ingenuity to meet this challenge.”

The committee heard from Miriam Delphin-Rittmon, PhD, Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Use at the Department of Health and Human Services and Administrator of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMSHA). In her statement, Delphin-Rittmon outlined SAMSHA’s key near-term priorities, including preventing overdose deaths, improving access to suicide prevention and crisis treatment, advancing adolescent and child behavioral health, integrating physical and behavioral health care, and finally the Use of performance measures, data and evaluations to inform agency decision-making. She further outlined the agency’s recent actions to advance these goals, including the establishment of a new Office of Recovery, the establishment of a new Suicidal Crisis Support System, and the expansion of evidence-based integrated behavioral health models such as Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics. Delphin-Rittmon further described the agency’s funding initiatives to expand access to evidence-based addiction treatment and harm reduction services, and to promote the mental health and well-being of young people, tribal populations, adults with serious mental illness, and pregnant and postpartum individuals.

The committee also heard from Carole Johnson, Administrator of the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA). Johnson highlighted two important mental health programs pending approval: (1) the Screening and Treatment for Maternal Depression and Related Behavioral Health Disorders program, which empowers maternal health care providers to study and address behavioral disorders in the perinatal population, and (2) the Pediatric Mental Health Care Access program, which integrates behavioral health services into primary pediatric care through telemedicine. Johnson also highlighted HRSA’s ongoing efforts to strengthen and diversify the behavioral health workforce statewide, including graduate medical education programs such as the Children’s Hospital Medical Graduate Program and the Teaching Health Center Graduate Medical Education Program as well as loan-repayment programs such as the National Health Service Corps. She noted, “HRSA programs play an important role in developing and educating the behavioral health workforce and providing support and incentives to encourage providers to practice in the communities that need it most.”

The committee also heard from Joshua Gordon, MD, PhD, director of the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) within the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Gordon described how the basic scientific research supported by the NIMH forms the basis for new and innovative clinical treatments for mental and behavioral health problems. In addition, Gordon described the NIMH’s intention to work with federal agencies to disseminate evidence-based preventive and therapeutic interventions for mental and behavioral health, such as: B. the collaborative care model. The AAMC previously endorsed the collaborative care model, first developed at the University of Washington’s Advanced Integrated Mental Health Solutions (AIMS) center, in response to the Senate Finance Committee’s request for information on behavioral health [refer to Washington Highlights, Nov. 19, 2021].

Finally, the committee heard from Nora Volkow, MD, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), also within the NIH. Volkow emphasized the importance NIDA-supported research to develop evidence-based prevention and treatment strategies for substance use disorders. Volkow described how the agency has used telemedicine to expand access to opioid use disorder treatment for historically marginalized and hard-to-reach populations.

TThe committee plans to use testimony obtained at this hearing to inform the development of a future bipartisan legislative package that Murray expects to come out this summer.

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