Congress Casts Eye on Mental Health; Blunt-Stabenow Law; Pilot Programs in Eight States Expand Access to Community Health Services; Aiding Troops; Bill Brings Mental Health Treatment for Military into Line with Care for Physical Ailments

By Chuck Raasch; > | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), May 19, 2014 | Go to article overview

Congress Casts Eye on Mental Health; Blunt-Stabenow Law; Pilot Programs in Eight States Expand Access to Community Health Services; Aiding Troops; Bill Brings Mental Health Treatment for Military into Line with Care for Physical Ailments


Chuck Raasch; >, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


WASHINGTON * Forty-two years ago, Missouri Sen. Thomas Eagleton was dropped from George McGovern's presidential ticket over mental health concerns.

This month, a current Missouri senator, Roy Blunt, will tour civilian and military mental health facilities in the state to highlight a push to equate mental health treatment with physical care and to destigmatize the disease.

But Blunt, a Republican, does not wax much about progress these two images may represent.

"We haven't come nearly as far in 42 years as we should have, and I intend to continue to work to see that we view mental health issues like any physical issue," he said.

Prodded by problems of post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury in returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan and shocked by mass shootings involving attackers with mental health problems, Congress is tackling mental health more than any time in at least a generation, according to those involved.

Blunt and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., are among the leaders, in a bipartisan pairing rare in the current Congress.

Their efforts come amid allegations of poor service in Veterans Administration hospitals, including St. Louis, and concerns that the nation may not be ready for the post-traumatic stresses of its war veterans.

Spending on mental health in the armed services has doubled since 2007, and the Pentagon says it has made progress in treating soldiers and their families who are facing mental health issues. But some experts have also raised doubts about whether any of the programs are working.

Blunt said he sees an opportunity to confront a problem that he says has too long festered among civilians and soldiers.

"This is an area that, as a society and as a government, we have just not been willing to deal with in a way that we need to deal with," Blunt said in an interview in his office. "And now appears to be a good opportunity to move forward on a couple different things on mental health."

One of those is a Blunt-Stabenow law, signed this year by President Barack Obama, establishing pilot programs in eight states by 2017 expanding access to community mental health services. Blunt said he hopes Missouri is one of those states, but there is no guarantee.

The second bill, introduced by Blunt and a bipartisan group of senators, would bring mental health treatment for military service men and women and their families into line with the way physical ailments are treated, taking away limits on hospital stays, for instance, that exist for mental but not physical health.

It "really is the first legislation that addresses mental health in a comprehensive way from a federal perspective in many years," said Brent McGinty, president and CEO of the Missouri Coalition of Mental Health Centers.

The act, he said, adds new requirements for community-based mental health centers, including 24-hour care, home-health care programs that integrate physical and mental health treatment and partnerships with substance-abuse treatment providers. The requirements, which will begin testing in the eight states 2017, will come with additional federal aid, set at $25 million for the test program.

Currently, clinics and doctors dispensing medicine and treatment for mental health often don't also ask about blood pressure, diabetes, or other physical maladies that may be connected, McGinty said The new law sets standards that allow for more integrated, "holistic" treatment, he said.

Getting beyond the stigma of mental illness remains a challenge, both among civilians and members of the military, according to experts. Some think the push to equate and integrate mental and physical treatment can be a barrier breaker.

"It is a critical change because, I think, we have traditionally as a society conceptualized mental and physical health as two separate types of injuries, even though we have known for decades that this artificial line we have drawn between these two classes is just kind of made up," said Craig Bryan, executive director of the National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah. …

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