Parents, siblings and friends are rejoicing over Wednesday’s passage in the House, by a 392-26 vote, of the seminal 21st Century Cures Act, a $6.3 billion bill to overhaul mental health care in America. The bill is expected to quickly pass the Senate and secure President Obama’s signature, transforming it into law.
The Cures Act’s unexpected success thus far signals a radical departure from decades of Congressional indifference toward the mentally ill, interrupted occasionally by maladroit and socially damaging efforts at reform such as “deinstitutionalization.” Its strengths, weakness and potentially controversial sections are superbly analyzed by the pre-eminent mental-health blogger Pete Earley: http://www.peteearley.com/2016/11/30/murphys-family-mental-health-bill-finally-approved-next-step-senate-then-white-house/
The Act incorporates the language of the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act, a measure created and promoted for years by Congressman Tim Murphy (R-PA), the pre-eminent champion of reform on this issue in all of Congress. https://murphy.house.gov/latest-news/breaking-helping-families-in-mental-health-crisis-act-language-finalized-full-vote-to-take-place-next-week/.
Despite the euphoria and likely full passage, even its advocates acknowledge that the 21st Century Cures Act faces strong opposition from several influential sectors. The reliably progressive Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has criticized it for failing to constrain the “Big Pharma,” the notoriously profiteering multinational pharmaceutical industry, from profligate pricing and lax testing standards for protecting the safety of customers. On the other side of the spectrum, the conservative group Heritage Action for America,which has denounced the “gimmicky nature of the pay fors” in the Act—“the newly creating funding mechanism designed to bypass spending caps, or the overall level of spending.”
Congressman Murphy pinpointed his satisfaction with the House vote while agreeing that it is far from a cure-all for serious mental illness in America: “We didn’t get everything we needed, but we needed everything we got.” The Congressman, who is a Navy veteran and a practicing psychologist, went to work on his Crisis Act in 2012, following the massacre of schoolchildren in Newton, Connecticut, by the 20-year-old Adam Lanza, who had murdered his mother before the shooting spree and who killed himself afterward.
I have devoted a couple of chapters to Congress’s history of ineptitude and indifference to mental illness in NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE. In Chapter 13, “Debacle,” I examine the lingering social damage wrought by deinstitutionalization, the early-60s experiment in mass removal of patients from the nation’s flawed and overcrowded mental asylums without following through on guarantees that they would be cared for in a vast network of community-based centers operating without government oversight.
And finally, lest anyone imagine that the surviving mental and psychiatric hospitals have solved their problems, I offer the following short list of recent atrocities suffered by mental-hospital patients (all women, interestingly). I will add that my book takes its title from a string of horrific abuses, including at least one patient death by starvation (another woman, for whatever that may mean), that occurred at Milwaukee County Hospital in the years around 2010.
So: let us justly celebrate the House action on Wednesday in advancing the 21st Century Cures Act. But at the same time, let us not forget that much remains to be done—on the Act itself, and in our still-chaotic world of mental health care.