Senate votes to improve mental healthcare For Immediate Release

Senate votes to improve mental healthcare

Bill expands access to mental healthcare, boosts workforce, and strengthens quality of coverage

(BOSTON – 02/14/2020) The State Senate unanimously passed the Mental Health ABC Act, a comprehensive bill aimed at reforming the mental healthcare 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 healthcare delivery to better meet the needs of individuals and families.

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, more than half of a representative sample of fully-insured adults who sought mental healthcare services reported difficulty finding services.

“You only need to visit a Massachusetts prison to realize that parity between physical healthcare and mental healthcare is cruelly elusive,” said local State Senator Mike Barret.  “It’s time to rebalance our out-of-balance system. Thank you to my neighbor and colleague Senator Cindy Friedman for her championship of this legislation.”

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 bill 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 healthcare for all.  The Senate has prioritized efforts in the current legislative session to improve the delivery of mental health services in the following ways: appropriating record funding levels for mental health services in the FY20 budget; creating and funding a $10 million Behavioral Health Outreach, Access and Support Trust Fund; ensuring that health insurer’s provider network directories are accurate and up-to-date by eliminating so-called ‘ghost networks’; and protecting clinicians from unreasonable retroactive claims denials, or ‘clawbacks’ of payments for services, from insurance providers.

More on the bill:  

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 healthcare coverage, and penalties and alternative remedies for when an insurance company does not comply with the law.

Every day throughout the Commonwealth, adults and children arrive in emergency departments in the throes of acute mental health crises requiring immediate treatment in an appropriate setting.  Due to complex and restrictive medical necessity and prior authorization review processes imposed by insurance companies, many patients experience barriers, and delays, in treatment – creating a dysfunctional system that allows insurance companies to have more leverage in determining a patient’s course of treatment than healthcare providers.  As such, the bill 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 healthcare 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.

Through debate today in the Senate, the following are some of the sections added by amendment to the bill:

  • A pediatric mental healthcare task force.
  • Inclusion of veterans and aging adult populations for considerations in the cultural competency study.
  • An amendment to study the further screening of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).
  • A comprehensive behavioral workforce commission.
  • An expedited admission protocol for children under 22 who present in an emergency department with mental health needs.
  • An examination of ways to ease communications, within the context of privacy laws, between healthcare providers.

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

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