U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, right, speaks with attendee Jerry Castille during a town hall meeting Friday, February 24, 2017, at City Hall in Breaux Bridge, La.

Advocate staff photo by LESLIE WESTBROOK

In December of 2016, in a stunning bipartisan victory, Congress enacted the 21st Century Cures Act-- mental health reform legislation designed to improve the lives of Americans living with mental illness. U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana was an early champion of mental health reform, and helped blaze the trail to successful passage of this landmark legislation. We at NAMI Louisiana applaud his leadership on mental health issues. Yet, as Congress debates the future of the Affordable Care Act, we are deeply concerned that proposed cuts to Medicaid could slash services and supports to tens of thousands of Louisianans living with mental illness.

In 2016, Louisiana became the first state in the deep south to expand Medicaid eligibility as permitted under the Affordable Care Act. As Gov. John Bel Edwards noted, “I meet people from all walks of life who will be positively impacted by Medicaid Expansion.” He added “Although my initial goal was . . . to get people health coverage, the more important goal is to give people better health.” Since June, 2016 when expansion began, over 400,000 people have gained health coverage.

Medicaid provides the foundation for public mental health services in the United States, opening doors to treatment, keeping people healthy and giving them the chance to succeed at work, at school and in the community. Medicaid promotes early identification and treatment, enabling people get help before they reach the breaking point. By investing in well-researched, effective mental health services, Medicaid saves taxpayers dollars that would be spent on costly crisis care or criminal justice involvement.

At the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Louisiana, we hear daily from people and families affected by mental illness. Many are desperate for mental health services that would be out of reach without health coverage. In a few short months, our state has come a long way in helping people get the care they need.

But Congress could make or break our future progress.

The recently introduced American Health Care Act would seriously undercut Medicaid Expansion by 2020, dashing the hopes of thousands of uninsured people statewide. And Congress is also planning to severely limit Medicaid financing, which would roll back services for thousands more. We can’t afford that.

By passing the 21st Century Cures Act, Congress showed a true commitment to improving the nation’s mental health care system. We implore our congressional leaders to maintain the momentum and realize the promise of this legislation. As they lay plans for the future, we ask them keep what is already working and invest fully in health coverage, Medicaid and mental health care.

Nicole McGee

executive direcotr, NAMI Louisiana

Baton Rouge