Murphy bill overhauls mental-health system

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U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, introduced legislation Thursday that's designed to overhaul the nation's mental-health system with expanded access to care, increased use of court-ordered treatment programs and new investments in prevention, research and first-responder training.

Mr. Murphy unveiled the bill two days before the one-year anniversary of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., that killed 20 children and six adults.

"Those who need help the most are getting it the least because the nation's mental-health system is broken," Mr. Murphy, who has a doctorate in psychology, said in a statement.

Many of the initiatives would be overseen by a new assistant secretary in the Department of Health and Human Services.

In providing funds for special courts and mental-health training for police, paramedics and corrections officers, the bill would expand programs already in place in some parts of the country.

"I'm glad Congressman Murphy introduced something like that," said Common Pleas Judge John Zottola of Allegheny County, who previously presided over the county's mental-health court and then founded another specialty court for veterans with mental-health and substance-abuse disorders. He's also championed mental-health training for first responders.

State Rep. Thomas Caltagirone, D-Berks County, already has pushed through a resolution aimed at overhauling Pennsylvania's mental-health system. The resolution, passed in May, directed the Joint State Government Commission to study current practices and make recommendations within a year.

While the American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, National Alliance on Mental Illness and a handful of other organizations stepped forward to support Mr. Murphy's bill, the National Disability Rights Network complained that the legislation threatens funding for a 30-year-old national network of legal-advocacy programs.

Mr. Murphy, a clinical psychologist who is the author of "The Angry Child," emphasized preventive services for children in the bill. Among other provisions, the legislation would:

* Earmark $60 million over four years to cities, counties and court systems to establish "assisted outpatient treatment" programs, with the goal of reducing the number of people with mental illness who are hospitalized, incarcerated or likely to deteriorate to the point of harming themselves or others.

Only certain residents, such as those with a history of violence or those who have had difficulty caring for themselves, would be eligible for court-ordered treatment programs. The programs would be an arm of civil court, whereas mental-health and veterans courts adjudicate criminal cases.

Some see the programs as a way to help people like Richland resident Levi Staver, who is charged in the stabbing death of his grandmother, Constance Johnston, this year. His family said it had been unable, under current law, to force him into care.

• Allocate $ 9 million over three years for a handful of states to pilot programs that promote tele-psychiatry and better train primary-care doctors to screen patients, including children, for mental-health issues. Amid a national shortage of psychiatrists, tele-psychiatry -- the use of computers to provide care -- could expand the profession's reach to rural and other under-served areas.

• Modify privacy laws to make it easier for parents to get medical information about children with mental illness and provide funds for veterans services, including veterans courts and peer counseling.

• Provide $50 million for as many as 10 states to create demonstration projects for improving services at community medical health clinics, which serve many disadvantaged residents.

• Require states to provide Medicaid coverage of certain psychiatric drugs and more inpatient psychiatric stays; gather new data on the cost of treating prisoners with mental illness; provide mental-health training to first-responders and corrections officers, and provide grants to jails and prisons for new approaches to managing mentally ill offenders.

Joe Smydo: or 412-263-1548.

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