BOSTON — The Massachusetts Senate unveiled a sweeping bill Thursday aimed at making good on the state's long-held pledge to provide mental health care on a par with care for physical ailments like heart disease or a broken leg.
Supporters say the bill help remove barriers to timely care, provide the state with better tools to enforce its existing mental health parity laws, and create a more diverse workforce of mental health clinicians.
The bill aims to build on mental health parity laws passed in 2000 and 2008.
Democratic Senate President Karen Spilka said the bill was a personal priority.
Spilka said her father experienced trauma as a soldier in World War II — having been injured by a land mine and been on hand during the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp — and struggled with mental illness most of his life.
“My father never sought attention, never sought help," she said. “There was a stigma attached that he could never get over.”
The bill takes several steps designed to put mental health care on an equal footing with other forms of medical care, including eliminating the need for patients experiencing acute mental health crises to get prior authorization from insurers before receiving care and prohibiting insurers from denying coverage for mental health services and primary care services solely because they were delivered on the same day in the same facility.
The legislation would also create a special commission charged with recommending a common set of medical necessity criteria to be used by health care providers and insurers for mental health services.
Part of the problem in Massachusetts is that many mental health professionals are independent and don't accept insurance. Those seeking care have to pay out of pocket and then see if they can get reimbursed by their insurer.
The bill also seeks to expand mental health access to underserved cultural, ethnic and linguistic populations and the LGBTQ community. Currently about 90% of mental health clinicians in Massachusetts are non-Latino whites.
"Language barriers and lack of a cultural background can be a real barrier to care," said Democratic Sen. Julian Cyr, one of the bill’s backers.
Other elements of the bill include: requiring emergency departments to have the capacity to evaluate and stabilize a person admitted with a mental health problem; increasing access to mental health care in geographically isolated areas in the state; and creating telebehavioral health service pilot programs in public high schools.
Danna Mauch, president of the Massachusetts Association for Mental Health, said advocates have been fighting for mental health parity since the 1970s, and the Senate bill — combined with parallel provisions in a health care bill filed by Republican Gov. Charlie Baker — will help bring the state closer to a true level playing field for mental and physical health.
“People have been waiting years and years for some kind of equitable arrangement,” Mauch said. “I think everyone is in agreement that this is a step forward.”
The bill carries a price tag of about $5.7 million — money that will come out of an existing state fund.
The Senate is expected to debate the bill next Thursday.