Senate May Tie Block Grants to State Plans to Reduce Suicides

Published June 28, 2016

A bill that would tie existing federal block grants to expansion of state suicide prevention programs, drug abuse counseling, and training to defuse potential crisis situations arising from mental illness has passed U.S. Senate committee markup and has been placed on the full chamber’s calendar.

The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions passed Senate Bill 2680, the Mental Health Reform Act of 2016, on April 26. Sponsored by committee Chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), the bill requires states, as a condition of receiving federal monetary block grants for mental health care programs, to describe to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) how they would use the money to “reduce hospitalizations and hospital stays” and “incidents of suicide.”

SB 2680 also would require the HHS secretary and other federal agency chiefs to develop recommendations regarding which opioid prescribers should take opioid education programs, how frequently prescribers must partake in the programs, and the programs’ contents.

A section of the bill titled the Mental Health Awareness and Improvement Act of 2016 would modify an existing block grant to reward states that train “personnel,” as opposed to the current law’s phrase, “emergency services personnel,” to deescalate crises arising from mental illness.

Another section of the legislation, titled the Mental Health on Campus Improvement Act, states, “44 percent of the students who visit campus counseling centers are dealing with severe mental illness, up from 16 percent in 2000.”

Feds to Evaluate Programs, Drugs

The committee says SB 2680 would improve the federal government’s ability to oversee state mental health programs.

“The bill will improve coordination between federal agencies and departments that provide grants and services for individuals with mental illness, and will improve accountability and evaluations of mental health programs,” a March 16 committee press release stated.

If the bill becomes law, HHS will continue to determine whether a state agency administering a mental health program is eligible to receive the block grants.

A separate provision would require the commissioner of food and drugs to refer applications for approval of opioid drugs to a special U.S. Food and Drug Administration advisory committee before approving them, except when the commissioner deems such a referral “is not in the interest of protecting and promoting public health.”

Potential for Federal Overreach

Kate Murphy, a mental health policy fellow at the Center for Health Care Policy at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, says SB 2680 would increase the federal government’s involvement in the treatment of mental health patients.

“It appears to be more of the same,” Murphy said. “In terms of free-market principles, this legislation likely does quite the opposite. It is more government involvement in mental health.”

The legislation would also appropriate any sums necessary through 2021 to fund jail diversion programs—programs to help keep out of jail people who commit nonviolent crimes arising from their abuse of drugs and alcohol.

“Crisis Intervention Team [programs], mental health courts, jail diversion programs—I have no problem with those types of reforms,” Murphy said. “They are generally going to be positive and help reduce government spending and involvement in people’s lives.”

Diversion programs benefit the general jail population as well as inmates with mental illness, Murphy says.

“It’s worth noting that criminal justice reforms that target mental illness have a limited effect, because so few of the people with mental illness in jail are there because of their illness,” Murphy said. “About 82 percent are there for the same reasons as anyone else, so general diversion tends to be just as effective, especially because general diversion tactics often include necessary treatment.”

David Grandouiller ([email protected]) writes from Cedarville, Ohio.

Internet Info:

Justin Haskins, “End these regulations to ease mental health crisis,” The Gazette (Eastern Iowa), June 2, 2016:

Michael Hamilton, “Mental Illness Feels Like’ States Ought to Remove Barriers to Telehealth,” Consumer Power Report, The Heartland Institute, June 2, 2016: