FROM OUR COMMUNITY: Many gains on mental health issues, but much remains undone

Our mental health system is still under construction. Too many people are unable to access the mental health treatment they need in the communities where they live, pushing people to more expensive parts of our system like a hospital emergency department or the criminal justice system.

National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) Minnesota is pleased to report that the House, Senate, and Governor Walz were able to reach a bipartisan compromise and make numerous, critical investments in our mental health system. Top NAMI priorities include funding for Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics or CCBHCs, intensive mental health services for children including covering the lost federal funding for residential mental health treatment, keeping the provider tax, a major investment in suicide prevention at the Department of Health, and a funding increase for school-linked mental health services.

The 2019 session also saw the passage of key NAMI policy priorities. For over a decade, federal mental health parity regulations have required insurers to cover mental illnesses, such as depression or substance use disorder, no more restrictively than other illnesses such as diabetes or heart disease. Despite these laws, private health plans continue to discriminate treatment for mental illnesses through more restrictive determinations of medical necessity, narrow networks, and prior authorizations. Bipartisan mental health parity legislation will allow the Department of Commerce to request additional information from health plans to ensure that they are following the law.

The Public Safety Omnibus bill also includes a long-overdue effort to reform the use of restrictive housing or solitary confinement in Minnesota prisons. Legislation championed by Rep. Nick Zerwas (R-Elk River) and NAMI Minnesota will create new and significant protections for Minnesota prisoners. These include requirements that only the most severe or persistent rule violations will place an inmate in segregation, that every inmate receives a mental health screening before they are placed in solitary confinement, daily mental health checks, the creation of a step-down program for inmates to work their way out of solitary confinement, and mandatory data reporting to the legislature about the use of solitary confinement. These basic protections will improve prison safety and provide new protections for inmates with a mental illness.

There is much to celebrate in the 2019 legislative session, but numerous important priorities for the mental health community were left unaddressed. Reimbursement rates for mental health providers remain unsustainably low, our mental health workforce needs in rural Minnesota and communities of color are still unmet, and too many communities do not have access to First Episode Psychosis programs and other highly effective community-based treatment options.

“Mental health is not a partisan issue and divided government in Minnesota was able to deliver many key victories for the mental health community,” said Sue Abderholden, NAMI Minnesota’s executive director, “Investments in CCBHCs, children’s mental health treatment, and school-linked mental health services are all steps in the right direction. But with a rising suicide rate and a 15 percent increase in the homeless population, now is no time to rest on our laurels. We’ll be back next session to make sure that we continue to build our mental health system.”

For more information, contact Abderholden at 612-202-3595 or sabderholden@namimn.org.