Calculated competition: Democrats fail to help on mental health reform

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Imitation is said to be the sincerest form of flattery, but when it comes to reforming the nation’s mental health system it may just be an excuse for partisan gridlock. That is the fear now that sweeping legislation proposed by Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, has a competitor offered by Democrats.

While this new bill — HR 4574 — is not identical to Mr. Murphy’s HR 3717, the Democrats’ boiled-down version covers some of the same ground, leaving out some provisions, including some and adding its own spin. Notably, the bill strengthens the programs of the Substance Abuse and Mental Services Administration, whereas Mr. Murphy seeks to trim its influence.

Some of the provisions in Mr. Murphy’s bill may be open to challenge, but it has been widely hailed as one of the most comprehensive mental health reform efforts in years. Mr. Murphy led a yearlong investigation into the delivery of mental health care, prompted by the shooting deaths at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.

Now Rep. Ron Barber, D-Ariz., the prime sponsor of the competing bill, comes out six months after Mr. Murphy with his own mental health reform lite. This may make him look good in a tight re-election battle in Arizona, but his effort is open to the criticism that it doesn’t do much to get help for the seriously mentally ill, which the Murphy bill boldly does, for example by forcing some troubled people into outpatient treatment without their consent.

Mr. Barber is a former aide to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and was injured in the same attack by a gunman that wounded her. He should naturally support Mr. Murphy’s effort to cut gun violence by seeking help for the subset of mentally ill people whose serious problems put them at risk of doing violence. Yet he offers an alternative that is not as comprehensive.

What Mr. Barber and fellow Democrats have chosen to do is heave another partisan log onto the political fire, complicating the chances of Mr. Murphy’s quest for bipartisan reform. This leads to suspicion in some quarters that Democrats see Mr. Murphy’s measure to cut gun deaths by a different means as a distraction from their drive for more gun control.

If that is the case, then there’s no flattery in this imitation — just political calculation.

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