Lawmakers expand mental health services |  Boston

Lawmakers expand mental health services | Boston

BOSTON — Health insurers would need to cover same-day mental health services under a proposal awaiting action from Gov. Charlie Baker aimed at breaking down barriers to care and improving behavioral health services.

The bill, sent to Baker’s desk by the state Legislature on Monday, would require insurers to cover annual mental health exams, similar to wellness checks, and require them to cover same-day psychiatric and emergency stabilization care .

The move is the latest aimed at addressing a mental health “crisis” that experts say has been exacerbated by the disruption and isolation of the pandemic.

The House and Senate passed separate measures on mental health issues, and a six-member conference committee worked out differences between the bills with a compromise plan approved early Monday, the final day of formal sessions.

Overhauling the mental health laws was a key agenda item for Democratic lawmakers, including Senate Speaker Karen Spilka, who shared the story of her own family’s struggle with mental illness during the debate on the proposal.

“We all deserve to have access to the mental health care we need, when we need it, and today we are close to having major mental and behavioral health care reform signed into law,” the Ashland Democrat said the final approval of the bill.

Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr said the legislation will make mental health assessment and treatment “stronger, better and more effective so that people in need of care have better access to critical resources in the right place and by the right people.”

The Gloucester Republican said the changes are “necessary steps to advance and strengthen mental health care delivery by ensuring parity with physical health care and expeditiously moving pediatric mental health patients from emergency departments to more appropriate treatment facilities.”

The approval of the measure follows the state’s commitment to spend significant amounts of money to improve mental health coverage and care.

In December, Baker signed a $4 billion COVID-19 relief bill redirecting $400 million to expand behavioral health services and curb boarding of psychiatric patients.

The measure also includes provisions aimed at reducing the number of adults and children who are forced to “walk into” emergency rooms while waiting for beds in psychiatric facilities.

At least 478 people have been housed in 46 hospitals across the state in the past week while awaiting mental and behavioral health services, according to the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association, which maintains a weekly tally.

The bill would also increase penalties for insurers that treat mental and physical health differently. While state and federal laws require behavioral health services to be treated by insurers the same way they treat physical health care, lawmakers and health care advocates say it doesn’t always work that way.

The plan would also require the state to do more to promote the “red flag” law, which allows police, friends or relatives of a legal gun owner to seek an “extreme protection” order if they believe that the person poses a risk to themselves or others. The order gives police the power to temporarily confiscate firearms and ammunition.

But gun control advocates are concerned that the number of petitions under the law is lagging behind other states that have similar protections on their books. They say many people don’t know about the new law, which is probably an important factor.

Baker has until next Thursday to sign the legislation with recommended changes, veto it, or send it back to lawmakers.

Christian M. Wade reports on the Massachusetts Statehouse for the North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at [email protected]

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