WASHINGTON — Legislation to provide increased federal funding for emergency services to mentally ill patients, authored by Maryland Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin, is awaiting House action after unanimous approval by the Senate earlier this month.
The Improving Access to Emergency Psychiatric Care Act would extend the deadline for a pilot program that provides more emergency room beds in psychiatric hospitals for patients experiencing mental health issues. The measure passed the Senate on Sept. 28 without opposition.
“We need to address the multiple reasons why people are not getting the help they need,” Cardin said in a statement.
Before implementing this program, inpatient facilities with more than 16 beds for those with mental health disorders were prohibited from receiving federal Medicaid matching funds for psychiatric services, according to a Cardin’s office.
In Maryland’s case, state funding previously only reimbursed private psychiatric inpatient services for 84 percent of the costs.
Cardin’s legislation aims to cover the costs of expanding services and providing better care.
The program’s goal is to increase the use of psychiatric service facilities, reduce the waiting time for inpatient beds, and provide better aftercare following discharge, according to a report to Congress evaluating the pilot program.
Cardin received bipartisan support for the bill, which included two Republicans as original cosponsors, Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey and Maine Sen. Susan Collins.
“Mental health is, thankfully, an issue that seems somewhat less partisan,” Cardin said. “Congress also can play a meaningful role in spotlighting these issues, especially de-stigmatizing mental illness. “
The psychiatric Medicaid expansion program was set to end on Dec. 31, but Cardin’s bill will extend the deadline until September of 2016, when the secretary of Health and Human Services would have the authority to extend it again through December of 2019, pending further evaluation.
“The administration is committed to building on the promise of mental health parity by expanding access to services, supporting research, and working to ensure care for people in need of mental health services,” HHS Deputy Assistant Secretary Mark Weber said.
Three facilities specializing in mental health care in Maryland are currently participating in the demonstration project: Adventist Behavioral Health in Rockville, Brook Lane Health Services in Hagerstown and the Sheppard Pratt Health System in Towson.
“The (program) created the capacity that does not exist within the existing psychiatric units in general hospitals,” said Bonnie Katz, the vice president of business development and support operations for the Sheppard Pratt Health System.
Katz hopes this extension will yield further positive results and eventually eliminate the provision that prohibits Medicaid funding for private psychiatric care facilities.
“Patient satisfaction was high, diagnostic determinations were consistent, lengths of stay were appropriate, readmission rates were reasonable and the cost of care did not exceed care in general hospitals,” Katz said, highlighting the preliminary results of the program.
Under Cardin’s measure, if the program is granted another three-year extension upon reaching its new 2016 deadline, the HHS would make a recommendation to Congress to permanently expand the resources made available to psychiatric patients through Medicaid.
“The Affordable Care Act made strides in mental health parity and helping individuals get the care they need, but there is still more to be done,” Cardin said. “Congress must continue to work to make quality mental health care more affordable and more accessible.”
The legislation has been assigned to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and awaits a further vote.