Congressman Murphy outlines mental health reform

July 7, 2014
Congressman Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, spoke Monday at Canonsburg Hospital on mental health reform and his proposed Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act. - Emily Petsko / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

CANONSBURG – About six psychiatrists work in Washington County, and the number is even lower in Greene County. Nationally, there were 550,000 psychiatric beds available in the 1950s, and today there are less than 40,000 to serve a much larger U.S. population.

“It’s hardly enough,” U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, said Monday during a gathering of Canonsburg Hospital employees.

Murphy, who also is a clinical psychologist, spoke to employees about the barriers to mental health reform and <URL destination="">his plan to improve access to treatment.

</URL>While serving as chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Murphy authored House Bill 3717 – the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act. Parts of the bill have already passed in the House of Representatives, including a $60 million grant program for assisted outpatient treatment.

Murphy said a lack of inpatient mental health facilities is a major obstacle. Many patients with serious mental illnesses cannot be admitted to a psychiatric facility unless they are deemed an “imminent danger” to themselves or others – language that Murphy wants to amend to allow greater access to treatment for patients who need it most.

Instead, patients often end up in the hospital emergency room, where their mental health treatment is delayed and a bed costs two to three times more than what a psychiatric bed costs, Murphy said.

“If you have someone who’s in the middle of a psychotic or bipolar manic breakdown, and they’re brought to you in the hospital, how do they usually come?” Murphy said, addressing the room of hospital employees. “Police bring them in handcuffs, they take them to the (emergency room), they’re given a five-point tie-down and they’re given a sedative or some other chemical straightjacket. That’s not treatment, that’s control.”

About 9.6 million Americans have a serious mental illness, and about 3.6 million go untreated, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Studies show mental health treatment reduces the risk of violent outbreaks fifteenfold.

“Almost everybody has a need for more behavioral health, and we’re kind of evaluating that as a system right now,” said Jane Sarra, president and chief executive officer of Canonsburg Hospital.

The hospital does not have a psychiatric unit but is in the process of recruiting a psychiatrist.

Murphy said mental health patients could be kept out of hospitals and jails by addressing the problem early. He said about 30,000 child psychiatrists are needed nationwide, and currently there are only 7,000.

The Mental Health Crisis Act would modify privacy stipulations in the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act to allow mental health professionals to release crucial information to patients’ caretakers.

Murphy, citing the killing sprees at Virginia Tech and, more recently, in Santa Barbara, Calif., said alerting parents to the extent of their child’s mental health crisis could prevent future tragedies.

The bill would establish the position of Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders to supervise the administrator of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

It also would identify and cut funding for what Murphy called the “federal failures” – government-funded programs that do not adequately address the issue of mental health treatment. Murphy said some programs and conferences contribute to the problem by advocating for alternative medicines and urging patients to forego medication altogether.

The bill also would allow Medicare to cover more prescription drugs used to treat mental health disorders and allow for same-day billing so patients could see a mental health physician immediately.

Murphy said the current federal framework for mental health care is expensive and uncoordinated.

“We’re treating people with mental illness with jails and homelessness instead of getting them back to work and being independent,” Murphy said. “I think the most compassionate thing to say is to get them the help early instead of delaying it.”

Emily Petsko joined the Observer-Reporter as a staff writer in June 2013. She graduated from Point Park University with a dual bachelor's degree in journalism and global cultural studies.

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