Mt. Vernon Register-News

Opinion

December 24, 2013

Law could finally fix mental-health care

(Continued)

A second big weakness in the system is a shortfall of hospital beds — estimated to be 100,000 nationwide. This came into the spotlight last month when Gus Deeds, the son of Virginia State Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, stabbed his father and then shot himself, fatally. A day earlier, Gus had undergone a psychiatric evaluation under an emergency custody order, but because no local bed was available, he wasn’t admitted to a hospital.

The Murphy bill would increase access to acute-care beds for the most critical patients by lifting Medicaid rules that prohibit reimbursement for patients over age 21 and under 65.

The bill would also curb excessive secrecy surrounding patient information under the scope of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. Respectful confidentiality regarding psychiatric treatment is one thing, but too often frantic family members are not even told that their loved ones have been hospitalized. Murphy’s legislation would allow parents (psychotic illness often begins in late teenage years) and other “personal representatives” to communicate with patients’ doctors and caretakers.

Finally, there is the need to help disturbed people who never get to a hospital — for example, Aaron Alexis, who killed 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard in September. Several weeks earlier, Alexis, paranoid and delusional, had called police from a hotel room, but the responding officers were unequipped to handle the situation.

The Murphy bill would provide training to law enforcement and correctional officers on how to recognize mental illness and intervene to help people get treatment.

The bill includes other innovations — for example, funding for a National Mental Health Policy Laboratory to identify more effective treatments. It also directs the Justice Department to monitor crimes committed by people with serious mental illness and develop strategies to prevent them. And it requires states to refine commitment statutes to encompass involuntary care for people who are unable to seek the psychiatric care they need to prevent further physical or psychiatric deterioration.

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