Massachusetts Wants to Give Residents Free Mental Health Exams, Streamline Their Care

A bill to be debated by the Massachusetts Senate next week would provide residents free annual mental health exams, among other reforms, and dedicate $122 million to hiring nearly 2,000 mental health professionals, the Associated Press reported.

Democratic Senate President Karen Spilka is a strong advocate for the bill, having watched her father suffer from undiagnosed and untreated PTSD after serving in World War II.

"I know first-hand how mental health conditions can affect the entire family, not only the person that might be experiencing mental health issues, but the entire family," Spilka said.

The legislation also tackles the rough transition between emergency and long-term care. AP reported that when someone is in a mental health crisis and seeks help at a hospital's emergency room, it could take days to even months for them to be admitted to an inpatient psychiatric unit. During the waiting period, the patient usually receives no mental health care.

Through this bill, every hospital emergency room would have a behavioral health professional. Also, it would create an online portal where health care providers could search for open beds in psychiatric units.

The bill also aims to streamline many processes involved in getting care, including making sure insurance companies approve mental health treatment, mental health professionals are sufficiently reimbursed and more.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Massachusetts, Karen Spilka
Massachusetts residents would be eligible for annual mental health wellness exams, akin to annual physical exams, at no cost under a sweeping mental health bill expected to be debated by the state Senate during their legislative session beginning on November 15. Above, Massachusetts Senate President Karen Spilka stands in the Senate Chamber at the Massachusetts Statehouse on January 2, 2019, in Boston. Elise Amendola, File/AP Photo

The bill would rely in part on $400 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds.

The legislation would also reimburse create a standard release form, eliminate requirements for prior authorization from insurance providers for acute mental health treatment, encourage health care facilities to develop more emergency psychiatric services, and increase access to mental health care in more geographically isolated areas.

While Massachusetts has made strides in expanding health coverage, many residents still face barriers to accessing the care they need, particularly behavioral health care, according to Amy Rosenthal, executive director of the advocacy group Health Care for All.

Rosenthal said the Senate bill "seeks to address these barriers through several levers, including enhancing health insurance coverage and parity provisions, building and diversifying the workforce, addressing the emergency department boarding crisis, and increasing access for especially underserved populations."

The bill is an updated version of legislation approved by the Senate last year.

If again approved by the Senate next week, the bill would go to the Massachusetts House for consideration.

Massachusetts State House
A sweeping mental health bill will be debated in the Massachusetts Senate next week. If approved, it will move to the House. Above, the Massachusetts State House in Boston. Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images