BOSTON — Health insurers would be required to cover same-day psychiatric services under a proposal pending action by Gov. Charlie Baker that aims to ease barriers to care and improve behavioral health services.
The bill, sent to Baker’s desk by the state Legislature on Monday, would require insurers to cover annual mental health screenings, similar to wellness exams, and require them to cover one-day psychiatric and emergency stabilization care.
The move is the latest aimed at tackling a mental health “crisis” which experts say has been exacerbated by the disruption and isolation of the pandemic.
The House and Senate passed separate measures targeting 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.
Overhauling mental health laws was a key item on the agenda of Democratic legislative leaders, including Senate Speaker Karen Spilka, who during a 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 verge of seeing comprehensive mental and behavioral health reform signed into law,” the Ashland Democrat said after the final approval of the bill.
Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr said the legislation would make mental health assessments and treatment “stronger, better and more effective so that people in need of care have better access to 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 ensuring parity with physical health care, moving pediatric mental health patients quickly from emergency rooms to more appropriate facilities.” .
The measure’s approval follows state commitments to spend significant 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 limit the “housing” of psychiatric patients.
The measure also includes provisions aimed at reducing the number of adults and children forced to “house” in emergency rooms while waiting for beds in psychiatric facilities.
As of last week, at least 478 people were housed in 46 hospitals across the state while waiting for mental and behavioral health services, according to the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association, which keeps weekly reports.
The bill would also increase penalties for insurers who treat mental and physical health differently. While state and federal laws require that behavioral health services 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, which allows police, friends or relatives of a legal gun owner to seek an “extreme protection” order if they believe the person poses a risk to themselves yourself or for others. The order gives police the 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 probably 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 newspapers and websites for the North of Boston Media Group. Email him at [email protected]