In light of 'weekly tragedies,' U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy introduces legislation to revamp mental health care _lowres

Advocate Photo by MARSHA SHULER -- U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., stands in the Baton Rouge Crisis Intervention Center's memorial garden Thursday, where he talked about legislation he's coauthored to focus more federal dollars and attention on combating mental illness.

The federal government needs to focus more dollars and earlier treatment on those with serious mental illness to avert the violence across the nation, U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy said Thursday.

Cassidy said the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s spending is “unfocused” when it comes to mental illness.

Cassidy, R-La., and U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., have filed legislation to address a lack of resources — both funding and care providers, improve coordination of care, as well as early intervention efforts.

“Mental illness is rampant,” Cassidy said.

The federal legislation was “frankly driven by the weekly tragedies,” Cassidy said, referring to the spate of recent deaths and injuries on college campuses and elsewhere at the hands of mentally ill people.

Cassidy said the legislation tries to focus dollars on those with serious mental illness.

If there is an intervention at the first sign of problems, Cassidy said, the person does not “begin a downward spiral.”

“That 15- to 30-year-old is where you really want to focus resources, where you have a serious episode of mental illness. ... You can intervene,” Cassidy said. “You can restore them to wellness which is sustainable.”

Other parts of the legislation involves increasing the number of beds available for Medicaid patients in need of treatment, increasing the number of mental health providers by improving pay and removing barriers to Medicaid reimbursement for care, Cassidy said.

In addition, the legislation calls for establishing an assistant secretary for mental health and substance use disorder within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The assistant secretary would be responsible for overseeing grants and promoting best practices in early diagnosis.

Cassidy talked about his legislation as he visited the Baton Rouge Crisis Intervention Center, which — among other services — offers a 24/7 hotline that is always answered. The center’s executive director, Aaron Blackledge, told Cassidy of funding problems as some of its sources have dried up. Cassidy said a new business model may be required, with the center part of “a broader effort.”

Studies show that approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. suffer from a serious mental illness and 90 percent of those who commit suicide each year have an underlying mental illness.

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