Pennsylvania Representative Tim Murphy has introduced H. R. 3717. Known as the ‘Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act,’ the bill’s name is critically misleading. Although it sounds positive, it is very harmful and does nothing to advance—but serves to destroy—agencies, programs, and policies that support people living with mental illness and disabilities. Its consequences will be devastating.
Passage of H.R. 3717 would result in a giant step backward for Pennsylvania’s mental health system. It would undermine the progress made by people with disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Supreme Court’s Olmstead decision towards full participation in society and a life in the community.
Specifically, the Murphy Bill proposes:
1. Eliminating many innovative programs that have been developed by and for consumers. These programsensure that consumers serve as catalysts for transformation within the mental health system. The bill would terminate all SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) activities not specifically authorized in statute, throwing mental health and substance abuse treatment programs into disarray.
2. Increasing involuntary commitment and coercive treatment. It proposes assisted outpatient treatment criteria that will unnecessarily violate the right of persons with mental health conditions to informed consent and diminish their dignity, autonomy, and self-determination. And the bill goes further by directly linking a state’s ability to receive certain federal funds to the passage of an involuntary outpatient commitment law that includes the above described criteria. Involuntary treatment should only occur as a last resort and should be limited to instances where persons pose a serious risk of physical harm to themselves or others. Pennsylvania already allows for outpatient commitment. This is an unnecessary intrusion into state jurisdiction.
3. The bill would slash funding for the Protection and Advocacy for individuals with Mental Illness (PAIMI) and severely limit the system’s authority. In Pennsylvania, Disability Rights Network of PA (DRN) is the PAIMI system. It is the only federally mandated system with the responsibility and authority to protect and advocate the legal rights of people with mental illness in private and public institutions and treatment settings. Cuts to the PAIMI system will put vulnerable people with mental illness at risk of abuse, neglect and death, and will return us to the conditions the system was created to prevent. The bill also proposes preventing PAIMI from engaging in class action lawsuits, which is a key tool in initiating systemic reform. In the past 18 months, DRN addressed over 2,000 issues related to reports of abuse, and neglect and protection of legal rights, 434 of which were concerns for youths and young adults. The dissolution of the system will threaten the civil rights protections and the well-being of Pennsylvanians with mental illness
4. Changing privacy laws in ways that would likely lead to the erosion of protections and disruption of patient-provider relationships. The bill singles out people with mental disabilities for discriminatory treatment under HIPAA and FERPA. This decreased protection allows a health provider to override a patient’s objection to sharing privacy-protected information with family, personal representatives, and others providing financial support or care. This decreased protection would apply not only to people with mental illnesses, but also to people with developmental or learning disabilities such as autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, intellectual disability, and many specific learning disabilities. This discriminatory change could discourage people from seeking help, and is unneeded, as HIPAA and FERPA already include exceptions that allow disclosure for safety or emergency circumstances.
5. Essentially unraveling SAMHSA as it currently exists through a number of provisions that eliminate key programs and transferring decision-making to another costly federal bureaucracy. The cost would be paid by using up to 5 percent of the Community Mental Health Services Block Grant, which will reduce state funding.
Take Action Today to Stop the Murphy Bill
Register for a webinar to be conducted at 2:00 p.m. on May 16, 2014. PA advocacy groups have united to present this webinar, which will provide details regarding the bill, update its status, and outline advocacy strategies at both the state and national level. Among the webinar presenters is Leah Harris representing the National Coalition for Mental Health Recovery (NCMHR).
Call or email your representative in Congress. Visit this websitewww.house.gov/representatives/find/ for contact information. Not sure what to say? Try: “I am (name, city). Please do NOT to cosponsor or vote for HR 3717, the Murphy mental health bill. This bill discriminates against people with psychiatric diagnoses. It ends grants that help the most vulnerable people in your district. It strips rights and protections against abuse. It will not make our community safer.”
Set up an in-person meeting with your legislator or his/her staff. Visitwww.house.gov/representatives/find/ Unless you are going to Washington, D. C., you will want to ask for the meeting to take place in the district office.
Write Letters to the Editor of your local newspaper (especially if there has been an article published in support of the Murphy Bill). Here is a general resource on how to write a letter to the editor. Check your local paper’s guidelines on letter length and submission.