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Making a deeply personal case for improving access to mental health care, Massachusetts Senate President Karen Spilka and state Sen. Julian Cyr helped roll out a significant reform bill Thursday that seeks to improve access to care by identifying gaps in the system, enforcing equity laws and clearly requiring insurance coverage for many emergency services.
The bill, which will be debated in the Senate next week, would give the state notable new powers to enforce existing state and federal laws that require equitable access to physical and mental health care, but have fallen short.
The bill also proposes to remove barriers to providers accepting health insurance by streamlining state bureaucratic processes and to eliminate the need for clinicians to seek prior-authorization from insurance carriers before administering mental health services to a patient in crisis.
"For me, this bill has been decades in the making," said Spilka, who described growing up in a household with a father who had mental health issues stemming from his military service, but never received the care he needed.
The Senate Ways and Means Committee was polling the bill Thursday morning, and Spilka said senators, who had been briefed on the bill, would have until Monday to file amendments before a debate next Thursday.
Some state health insurers applauded the bill, saying it will lead to a uniform interpretation of the federal mental health parity law.
"We believe it is imperative that the entire health care system, not simply health plans, be responsible for helping us reach our shared goals of treating mental illness the same way we treat physical illness, using evidence-based standards and best practices to ensure optimal outcomes for patients," said Lora Pellegrini, President and CEO of the Massachusetts Association of Health Plans.
Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts also said it supported the measure.
"We pledge to continue to work together across the state to help improve access and ensure that our members get the high-quality care they need," the insurer said in a statement.
Following the Senate's passage of a prescriptions drug cost bill last year, Spilka described this legislation as the second of three health reform bills the Senate will take up this session, the third to a be a more general reform bill.
Sen. Julian Cyr, the co-chair of the Joint Committee on Mental Health, Substance Use and Treatment, shared his own story on social media Wednesday night ahead of the rollout, describing his struggle in adolescence with anxiety and depression.
Cyr, who is openly gay, said he was bullied, suffered panic attacks and developed an eating disorder. He said members of the LGBT community are three times more likely to need mental health care services.
"Therapy has helped me manage my anxiety and do things I never dreamed I could, and yet I still can't get my health insurance to cover my outpatient mental health care," Cyr said. "I'm a pretty savvy consumer. If I can't navigate the barriers to access and care, imagine how many people can't get the mental health care they need."
With additional reporting from WBUR's Deborah Becker.
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