Congress grapples with spending $500 million on mental health

(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

WASHINGTON (MEDIA GENERAL) – President Obama wants Congress to fork over an additional $500 million in mental health care funding. What’s unclear is how that money will actually be spent, if at all?

“The Administration is proposing a new $500 million investment to increase access to mental health care,” announced the White House.

Big words, few specifics.

Obama announced the forthcoming budget request during his latest gun control push, but the half-billion dollars is unlikely to be legally tied to firearms regulations, which leaves Congress in charge of ultimately doling out the giant chunk of dough.

The Republican-led Congress has no intention of being a rubber stamp for the president’s new round of hotly contested gun control initiatives. But members are highly motivated to pass a comprehensive mental health reform package in 2016 – which is wildly popular with voters and can be bragged about on the reelection trail come fall.

The tricky part for lawmakers who bill themselves as fiscal conservatives is the unavoidable price tag of mental health reform. That’s where President Obama comes in.

He can ask for $500 million. Fiscal hawks respond that $500 million is too much. And then both sides settle on a middle ground, passing reform for a reduced price. Win-win-win, if it works.

Reform in House of Reps

Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Penn.) penned the House’s leading bipartisan reform proposal and says he’s “more optimistic now than ever.”

Murphy’s bill, the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act, is now supported by the speaker of the House and cosponsored by 178 of his colleagues.

The president’s $500 million lump sum “could go toward making sure we have more psychiatric hospital beds for people who are in need of that and in crisis, for Medicaid to allow someone to see two doctors on the same day. It could go to making sure there are grants for programs that are targeted at treatment and prevention programs,” explained Congressman Murphy, a clinical psychologist by training.

The House Republican’s bill would also call for greater oversight and elimination of mental health and addiction programs not proven to be effective, which could cause legislative snags.

Republicans onboard

Obama made his big budgetary ask while rolling out his newest controversial package of federal gun reform executive orders in early January.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) slammed the president’s accompanying proposals to strengthen gun background checks and sales reporting policies, but bear-hugged the idea of acting on America’s mental health system.

“We have seen consistently that an underlying cause of these attacks has been mental illness, and we should look at ways to address this problem. We should also better enforce the laws we have on the books now to keep guns out of the hands of violent criminals,” wrote Speaker Ryan.

On the 2016 campaign trail, GOP frontrunner Donald Trump urged supporters and the media to pay more attention to mental health care instead of guns.

“All over the country, they’re closing up mental health hospitals for budget reasons and people don’t talk about that; they talk about the guns,” said Trump.

Senate action

The Senate has competing proposals in the works, which largely mirror Rep. Murphy’s bill.

Over the next few weeks, the Senate Health Committee is poised to consider a handful of bills to overhaul the nation’s mental health system.

Meanwhile, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hear from experts on the mental health crisis and take up legislation at a later date, including Sen. John Cornyn’s (R-Texas) bill which has been criticized as soft on guns.

Consensus on the Hill is that 2016 is the year of mental health reform – and President Obama’s budgetary commitment is a good signal that the White House is also onboard.

Follow Chance Seales on Twitter: @ChanceSeales

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