Gun Bill offers bipartisan chance to fund mental health centers

Two senators have been trying for nearly a decade to gain support to spend billions of dollars on clinics specifically designed to help people struggling with mental health and addiction issues. Now their efforts are paying off as the chamber prepares to vote on gun control legislation.

Meaning. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) say they have presented to their colleagues for years the need to send federal money to health clinics and to ease the mental health crisis care burden from police forces and poorly equipped emergency rooms. The clinics, the two men say, would fill the care vacuum left when the country closed its psychiatric hospitals in the 1950s and 1960s.

A breakthrough came this year as a bipartisan group of senators discussed how to stem gun violence following the mass shooting of children and two teachers at a Texas elementary school. The group wanted to link restrictions on gun purchases to significant spending on mental health care.

“Everybody realized it was time to do something really transformative,” Stabenow told reporters this week.

Sen. Roy Blunt speaks during a press conference on Capitol Hill with Sen. Debbie Stabenow nearly a decade ago as they lobbied to strengthen the nation’s mental health service. Appearing with them at the February 7, 2013 event is David O. Russell, director of the film “Silver Linings Playbook.”

Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Senate is due to vote on legislation that would provide $3 billion for mental health and school safety programs, as well as $2 billion for student mental health and school safety initiatives. Grants would also go towards mental health training for pediatricians and mental health awareness programs.

In total, Stabenow said, the package would spend about $8 billion on mental health and school programs. By comparison, the fiscal year 2022 allocation for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration was just over $6 billion.

The Senate voted 64 to 34 on Tuesday to advance bipartisan gun safety legislation, signaling it is expected to pass the chamber soon. House leaders said they would put it to a vote soon after.

Health clinics

One of the most important elements of the package would be to expand federally certified community behavioral health clinics, currently in a limited number of states, nationwide. Under the legislation, 10 new states can join the program every two years, according to an overview of the legislation provided by the group that brokered the deal.

Blunt said he and Stabenow first developed the idea in 2013 and pushed through a bill in 2014 that created a demonstration project in eight states. They followed that with grants and other funding over the years to expand it to 40 states and more than 300 clinics, according to federal data.

Proponents say the clinics have proven effective in keeping people with addiction or mental health issues out of emergency rooms and prisons and in treatment. The clinics have saved New York State more than $1 million from fewer hospitalizations and nearly $100,000 from fewer emergency room visits, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office of 2021.

“If passed, this bill will forever change the way people access mental health and addiction treatment in their communities,” said Chuck Ingoglia, President and CEO of the National Council for mental well-being.

When senators were debating a gun violence package, one of the first agreements was the need to include some spending to expand mental health services, the senators said. They were prepared to spend up to $10 billion on this part of the package, they said.

Sen. John Corny (R-Texas), a lead negotiator of the gun violence bill, said funding mental health in the legislation “could be the most important part of the bill.”

“Our mental health care delivery system in the United States is an outrage and we see the consequences everywhere,” he said.

Cornyn said he sees evidence that people who carry out mass shootings like the one at an elementary school in Uvalde in his home state a month ago have not received mental health services even though they showed signs of mental illness.

Blunt, who is retiring at the end of this year, said he contacted Cornyn when senators began talking about a gun violence agenda. He said Cornyn and Sen. Thomas Tillis (RN.C.) have both supported the expansion of community health centers.

“I told them ‘we have a model that works,'” Blunt said. “It works in Texas.”

The United States has significant gaps in mental health services, especially for children. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only about 20% of children with any type of mental health disorder receive care from a provider trained to treat these conditions.

The problem is particularly acute in Texas, where the nonprofit advocacy group Mental Health America ranks last in access to mental health.

Cornyn said the problem boils down to state mental health programs.

“The Texas Legislature has tried to fix it, but it’s never enough, never comprehensive enough,” he said. “It’s always a question of money.”

Stabenow said she spoke with the senator. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), another key negotiator and Senate Majority Leader chuck schumer (DN.Y.) about including his and Blunt’s idea in the package.

His argument: This must be done independently of the gun violence bill.

Murphy, whose state was the site of the mass shooting at a Newtown elementary school in 2012, said he fears linking mental health to a pattern of gun violence. People with mental health issues are more often the victim of a violent crime than the perpetrator, he explained. Even so, programs Murphy has long supported like community health centers, he said.

“If the price of getting changes to our gun laws was to help fix our broken mental health system, why wouldn’t I be up for it,” Murphy said.

Maria J. Book