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September 15, 2022

Lawmakers push for House action on mental health bills

Credit: CQ, Sandhya Raman

The House Bipartisan Addiction and Mental Health Task Force Thursday laid out a legislative agenda for 2022 topped by the priorities of getting the Senate to pass a House-passed mental health grants package and ensuring an expected fiscal 2023 omnibus spending bill includes sufficient funding for things like treatment, recovery and local law enforcement.

Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, D-N.H., and Rep. David Trone, D-Md., two of the group’s four co-chairs said the top priority was to pass the grants package (HR 7666). 

The group has to get the bill “hauled out of the Senate, out of the [Senate] HELP Committee, over the finish line. That’s job one,” said Trone, after which they could move on to “a real sustained, short term focus to try to get everything over the finish line.”

The 2022 agenda includes 106 bills from the group of more than 130 members, and each required at least one Republican and one Democrat to be considered for inclusion. Seven task force bills have been enacted in the 117th Congress so far, and 22 bills have passed at least one chamber.

The agenda includes bills into 13 subsections devoted to prevention, prescribing, treatment, health care parity, recovery, education and stigma reduction, workforce and workforce development, first responders and public safety, interdiction, rural communities, youth and families, service members and military families, and prisons and reentry. 

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., the third co-chair, said they have been trying to secure a dedicated legislative week on the floor devoted to mental health issues. 

Designating a full week to this issue isn’t unheard of. In 2018, the House spent a week in June voting on 55 smaller bills before coming together with the Senate to package what would become a major bipartisan law to address the opioid epidemic (PL 115-271).

“The best way to knock this out is dedicating an entire week — addiction and mental health week — where we knock out this entire legislative package in one week, and that’s what we’ve been asking for,” said Fitzpatrick, who said the time would be reserved to “basically consider no other legislative items other than this.”

He said this method would also encourage cooperation with the Senate, where committees of jurisdiction have been working on their own bipartisan mental health and addiction-related bills.

“It will all get passed. Our country would be better for it,” said Fitzpatrick. “It would put a lot of pressure on the Senate to deliver a comprehensive set of bipartisan bills, it would actually get done, and it would get signed into law.” 

Trone pointed to comments made by President Joe Biden made during his State of the Union address to Congress about his four-part unity agenda. Two of those four items include prioritizing mental health and addressing the opioid and drug overdose epidemic. 

“That’s where we are. We’re all on that same page, so we just got to get it to the front,”  said Trone. “We’ve got to get more of a sense of urgency. We got to get over the finish line.”

Addressing different aspects of mental health and addiction has become an increasing bipartisan endeavor on the federal and state level. The 2018 opioid law was signed by then-President Donald Trump.

On Thursday, a bipartisan group of 18 state attorneys general sent a letter to Biden calling on the administration to classify fentanyl as a weapon of mass destruction. The request would require action from the Department of Defense to work in coordination with the Drug Enforcement Administration and other agencies to control the proliferation of the drug.

Fentanyl, a potent type of opioid, continues to be responsible for most drug overdose deaths, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data released Wednesday. At least 103,664 individuals died in the 12-month period ending April 2022.

Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-Pa, who serves on the task force, said she had not yet seen the attorneys general proposal but that how fentanyl was labeled was “just semantics” though mitigating the current crisis requires thinking outside the box.

Her son, Harry Cunnane, also spoke about his own experiences in recovery for nearly 10 years. 

“I’m someone who was incredibly fortunate,” he said. “It shouldn’t be about luck that I had access to high quality safe, sober living, recovery housing.”

Kuster said the task force’s agenda will continue into next year when the next Congress convenes, regardless of the outcome of the midterm elections. “We want to socialize and educate all of our colleagues on both sides of the aisle about mental health and addiction,” she said. “We’ll be ready to go when we hit the ground running in January.”