By Lauren Fox
Vice President Joe Biden announced Tuesday the White House will invest $100 million to bolster the country’s mental health programs as the one-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting draws near.
Biden and mental health officials met privately with Sandy Hook families at the White House Tuesday to announce the investment. Dealing with the country’s mental health system has remained a key goal of Biden’s task force, which he spearheaded after the elementary school shooting. The $100 million in funding will go to enforcing laws already on the books and broadening access to mental health services. Roughly $50 million will go specifically to building up rural mental health programs.
The investment is the latest in a series of actions the administration has taken to keep the spotlight on the country’s mentally ill. In November, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius announced she would begin cracking down on insurers who are not in compliance with the Mental Health Parity Act, a law that requires insurers to cover mental health services as they cover physical ailments.
Mental health experts and advocates applauded the White House’s efforts. Ron Honberg, the director of policy and legal affairs at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, attended the White House meeting and said twhile the new funds won’t solve every issue, they will certainly advance the cause.
According to NAMI, fewer than 50 percent of Americans with serious mental health issues seek treatment and more than $4 billion in resources were cut from state mental health programs between 2009 and 2011. As a result of federal automatic budget cuts known as sequestration, funding for mental health programs has further deteriorated.
“Lord knows we need more money for mental health services,” Honberg says. “This is a good thing. We have a crisis in mental health care in this country.”
The executive actions, however, are bittersweet. Activists say they are a reminder that the polarized Congress has done very little to strengthen the country’s mental health programs.
“We have been disappointed with the lack of congressional action on mental health care,” Honberg says.
After the Newtown, Conn., massacre on Dec. 14, 2012, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle aspired to strengthen the country’s mental health system. In the Senate, however, mental health legislation became entangled with efforts to curb gun violence. For those opposed to gun control policies like reducing the availability of high-capacity magazines and banning assault weapons, mental health became the sensitive alternative to new gun control legislation. But those promises to do something never materialized. The momentum to help the mentally ill waned after the Senate failed to pass a simple background check bill in April.
“Mental health has been used largely as a dodge and diversion from the uncomfortable issue on gun control,” says Daniel Webster, director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins University. “Mental health is a good way to change the subject that makes you sound less radical than [NRA CEO] Wayne LaPierre who wants to arm teachers and put more guns into schools, even in untrained hands.”
A handful of senators including Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., introduced legislation and led the charge, but Congress never acted.
“It is not enough to just authorize new mental health programs, you actually have to find the money to pay for it,” says Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who has spent significant time on the gun control issue. “My impression is that there are Republicans willing to authorize new mental health programs, but aren’t really willing to put the money behind it.”
Activists are optimistic that the White House actions could breathe new life into the mental health debate as early as next year when Congress returns from a holiday break in January. Thursday, Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Penn., is expected to unveil his package of mental health reforms, which will focus on how the federal government can ensure the mentally ill and their families have better access to the care they need.
“There is still time,” says Honberg. “There is still bipartisan interest in fixing the mental health system and passing legislation to do so.”