AUSTIN — Lawmakers in the House will take up a slew of mental health bills Tuesday, including three priorities for the chamber — expanding insurance coverage for mental health conditions, establishing a jail diversion program and improving mental health education.
The proposals, and numerous others, are the result of months of research conducted last year by the House Select Committee on Mental Health, a collection of lawmakers from different backgrounds tasked with identifying weaknesses in the state’s mental health system.
Mental health is one of the few subjects that tends to unite members of the House and Senate. Both chambers are considering bills that address mental health workforce shortages, awareness and other industry needs. Budget proposals in both chambers would devote millions to the cause.
Shortcomings in the delivery of mental health services are not new in Texas, so why are lawmakers pointing to mental health as a critical concern this year?
“The shortest answer? Joe Straus,” said Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, vice chairman of the interim committee. “He gave the subject matter its due time and credit. It’s never been elevated to this level before. I’m glad to see other state leaders jumping on board, but why is it front and center? Because the speaker of the Texas House put it front and center.”
Straus, R-San Antonio, said addressing mental health needs in the state is “a top priority,” which compelled him to convene the panel last year.
“Our objectives coming into this year were to improve outcomes for patients and make the system more efficient for taxpayers,” Straus said in a prepared statement. “We’re making good progress towards both of those goals.”
There are specific programs and policies Straus and other lawmakers hope to pass this session, but Rep. Four Price, chairman of the Public Health and interim mental health committees, said the work won’t stop this year. The proposals being considered will likely leave gaps the state can address down the line.
“The bills we’re seeking to pass are foundational,” he said. “They are really trying to create the opportunity to not only improve circumstances today but to enhance the possibility that additional resources or modifications would apply down the road.”
The full House is scheduled to debate a bill Tuesday that would establish parity insurance parity for mental health disorders and substance abuse, requiring health insurance plans to provide the same coverage and benefits for them as they do under surgical and medical plans.
“Over and over again in the [interim] committee hearings, we heard how many Texans believe they have coverage and many plans reflect that coverage exists, but actual treatment is not often as available as folks think it should be,” Price said. “We are going to enforce better parity in Texas, which will improve access to care, which hopefully will produce better outcomes.”
Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, said the proposal builds on a mental health parity law he passed in 2005 but has fewer restrictions. Coleman, a longtime mental health advocate, speaks openly about his experience with bipolar disorder and how it makes him a better lawmaker.
Coleman has authored a handful of other mental health-related bills this session, including one that would offer Medicaid coverage for postpartum depression for up to a year after the birth of a child. That proposal is scheduled for a hearing in Price’s Public Health committee Tuesday.
The panel will also hear testimony on two of Straus’ priorities, including a bill aimed at increasing awareness for mental or behavioral health disorders through education. It would also direct the Texas Education Agency to create guidelines for school districts about how they can increase students’ access to mental health services.
“Statistically, most mental illness manifests by the age of 14, and if treated early can really stop the development of a more chronic illness down the road,” Price said. “It will expand the options for counselors, educators, teachers to become more familiar with signs and red flags associated with mental health conditions.”
He will also ask the committee to pass a bill that would create a statewide program for jail diversion, establishing alternatives to incarceration for individuals with mental health and substance abuse conditions. Price said law enforcement officials approached the committee with concerns about their ability to handle “folks in crisis.”
“With the growing population in Texas and as many folks in need of assistance as there are, it’s been difficult to keep pace,” he said. “Law enforcement has been very concerned and vocal about needing some relief.”
The bill would allow people experiencing a mental health crisis and facing certain nonviolent misdemeanor charges to receive treatment instead of being incarcerated.
“In many cases, we see the same individuals cycling through our criminal justice system, and it’s costing our taxpayers a good deal of money. It’s not a great use of our law enforcement resources, either,” Price said. “If we can identify the folks that are in need and treat them, under the right circumstances, I think that will keep them from cycling through our system.”