Legislature expands mental health services | Boston

BOSTON — Health insurers would be required to cover same-day psychiatric services under a proposal awaiting action from Gov. Charlie Baker that is aimed at easing barriers to care and improving behavioral health services.

The bill sent to Baker’s desk by the state Legislature on Monday would mandate 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 disruptions and isolation of the pandemic.

The House and Senate passed separate measures addressing 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.

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

“We all deserve to have access to the mental health care we need when we need it, and today we are on the brink to seeing comprehensive mental and behavioral health care reform signed into law,” the Ashland Democrat said after the bill’s final approval .

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

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

Approval of the measure follows commitments by the state to spend sizable amounts of money to improve mental health coverage and care.

In December, Baker signed a $4 billion COVID-19 relief bill that diverts $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 forced to “board” in emergency rooms while waiting for beds in psychiatric facilities.

As of last week, at least 478 individuals were being boarded in 46 hospitals across the state while awaiting mental and behavioral health services, according to the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association, which keeps a weekly tally.

The bill also would stiffen 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 as 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 that allows police, friends or relatives of a legal gun owner to seek an “extreme protection” order if they believe the individual poses a risk to himself or others . The order gives police power to temporarily confiscate firearms and ammunition.

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

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

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@northofboston.com.

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