Party approaches to mental health are miles apart

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WASHINGTON -- After failing to pass gun control legislation last year, Democrats in Congress now are focused on another way to reduce violence -- by improving access to mental health treatment.

But Republicans and some advocates of an overhaul say the bill introduced Tuesday evening doesn't go far enough, that it doesn't focus enough on the most serious mental illnesses and that it is a ploy to kill a competing bill by Upper St. Clair Republican Tim Murphy, whose plan some liberals fear would curtail gun-control talks.

During a hearing last month, concerns were raised about portions of the Murphy bill that would have made it easier for caregivers to access mental health records and would provide a mechanism to force the seriously mentally ill into outpatient treatment against their will. Democrats also railed against Mr. Murphy's plan because it restricts funding for legal aid that protects the interests of the seriously mentally ill who are unable to advocate for themselves.

The Democrats' bill strips those provisions but adopts other less controversial pieces of the Murphy bill, including a plan to improve electronic recordkeeping.

It also adds new provisions to support research, provides more funding for Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration programs and increases mental health services for veterans, active duty service members and school children.

Mr. Murphy and his supporters want to focus resources on people with the most serious mental illnesses.

Passage could be a political boost for lead sponsor Ron Barber, D-Ariz., who is in a tight re-election race against Martha McSally, a well-funded retired Air Force colonel. Mr. Barber, then a congressional aide, was wounded in a fatal shooting in Tucson, Ariz., where U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was seriously injured.

The incident might have been prevented if the shooter -- who had been exhibiting symptoms for two years -- had received treatment, Mr. Barber said as he unveiled the legislation at a news conference Tuesday evening.

Murphy chief of staff Susan Mosychuk said Mr. Barber's bill won't prevent mass shootings because it does nothing to help those with serious mental illness.

"Dr. Murphy is advancing real medical solutions; the Democrats are offering a placebo," she said.

Their bill denies treatment options to people in acute crisis and "denies families the opportunity to be part of the care team and help their loved ones," Ms. Mosychuk said.

Both bills create federal offices of mental health to coordinate programs across agencies.

D.J. Jaffe and other advocates for the seriously mentally ill prefer Mr. Murphy's bill because it concentrates resources where they are most needed rather than spending them on things like marriage counseling, grief counseling and anti-bullying efforts.

"Losing your job or having a loved one die is not a mental illness; it's something that happens to people," said Mr. Jaffe, executive director of Mental Illness Policy Org, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank.

He said Democrats are being pressured by providers who would lose federal funding if resources were focused on the most seriously mentally ill -- those who are more often treated in the criminal justice system than the mental health system.

"I'm uber liberal," he said, "but my fellow Dems just don't seem to understand that throwing money at mental health is not the same as treating serious mental illness."

Mr. Barber said it's important to treat symptoms as early as possible, not wait until people develop full-blown mental illnesses.

"We have to take a look at the earliest possible time," he said.

The National Association of School Psychologists supports that.

"Improving access to and effectiveness of services for prevention, early identification and intervention is critical to helping our children and youth thrive in school, and home, and in life," its president-elect, Stephen Brock, said in a written statement.

It isn't yet clear how much the legislation would cost or how it might be funded.

"What's a life worth? We have 22 veterans committing suicide every day," said Grace Napolitano, D-Calif., a co-sponsor of the Barber bill.

"It's going to be exceedingly expensive because of all those veterans coming back from Afghanistan and the ones from Iraq. It's going to be decades of service for them."

Children need help, too, she said. "Peer pressure, families splitting up, immigration issues -- a lot of that affects our youth," Ms. Napolitano said. "These are our future leaders. We need to move this agenda forward."

Mr. Barber said the mental health piece is only part of the solution needed to address gun violence.

"There is no one simple answer," he said. "But unless we deal with the mental health piece we're going to continue to have people -- like the young man who shot me and my colleagues -- go undiagnosed."

Congressional aides suggested that the introduction of competing legislation signaled an end to bipartisan negotiations that had been occurring over Mr. Murphy's bill. Mr. Barber, though, said he would continue talks with anyone who wants to move a bill forward.

"No negotiations are over," Mr. Barber said. "This is the first step, not the last step."

Mr. Murphy has repeatedly talked about inter-office cooperation to reduce duplication of services across agencies and to eliminate programs without proven track records.

Bureau chief Tracie Mauriello:, 1-703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets.

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