House GOP Loses Voice for Mental Health Reform

Mental health advocates say Rep. Tim Murphy’s resignation leaves a hole, but not everyone agreed with his approach.

Rep. Tim Murphy on March 17
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, file
Erin Durkin
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Erin Durkin
Oct. 19, 2017, 8 p.m.

Mental health advocates are looking to keep the ball rolling on reform now that House Republicans will be losing a prominent voice for mental health and addiction issues—Rep. Tim Murphy.

Murphy announced his resignation this month after reports emerged that the antiabortion lawmaker had urged a woman with whom he had an affair to get an abortion. Former staff members have accused him of verbal abuse and mistreatment as well, according to reports by Politico and other outlets.

Murphy will be leaving behind the chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee and multiple years of work on mental health issues.

“It will be a loss; there’s no question about it,” said Paul Gionfriddo, president and CEO of Mental Health America. “He’s been a strong advocate for mental health services and has really distinguished himself in that role in the last several years.”

Gionfriddo noted while there are many members who can step up, Murphy was one who kept pushing for more reforms even after getting key victories passed as part of the 21st Century Cures Act last year.

Mark Covall, president and CEO of the National Association of Psychiatric Health Systems, also said Murphy’s departure was a huge loss and credited the Pennsylvania Republican for bringing mental health issues to the forefront. “He brought this issue out of the shadows and has led to so many others getting educated,” he said.

But Chuck Ingoglia, senior vice president of public policy and practice improvement with the National Council for Behavioral Health, said that while Murphy’s resignation would leave a hole, he was a “very forceful man” who “wasn’t easy to work with personally.”

And he wasn’t always aligned with the viewpoints of several patient and professional groups.

One advocate said she was pleased at his departure, describing his approach to the issue as distracting and unhelpful. “His [work] on mental health has focused on a fairly regressive mental health policy,” said Bethany Lilly, deputy director of policy and legal advocacy at the Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law.

Murphy supported the House version of Obamacare repeal-and-replace, the American Health Care Act, even though many mental health advocates opposed it.

“Medicaid financing provisions contained within AHCA will eliminate the current requirement that states cover mental health services, and reduce overall Medicaid funding by $880 million, or 25 percent over 10 years,” wrote the American Psychiatric Association in a March letter to House leaders. “Given that 14 million, or 20 percent of Medicaid enrollees live with mental illness or substance use disorders, these provisions collectively threaten the ability of millions of Americans to seek or continue necessary care.”

Murphy defended his support for the legislation, saying patients would receive robust mental health benefits in a more effective way.

Gionfriddo said that even though Mental Health America did not support the AHCA, Murphy consistently brought attention to mental health services. “[Now], somebody else within that caucus would have to step forward and say, ‘If you’re going to get my vote for this kind of legislation, you’re going to have to give me dollars and support for this particular cause,’ and it’s not always the case that you can find a particular champion like that,” he said.

But Lilly said this was not enough. “What we need are representatives to go to bat for Medicaid. … I don’t think we need voices that pretend that people who need mental health services will still be covered.”

Some advocates pointed to Rep. Leonard Lance as a potential emerging House GOP voice for mental health policy. The New Jersey Republican had worked on mental health care reforms and pressed for funding for drug-addiction prevention in local communities as part of the 21st Century Cures Act.

Lance also voted against the AHCA in May. “I campaigned on a plan that protects those with pre-existing conditions and provides a stable transition for those forced into Obamacare at no fault of their own,” he stated in a press release at the time. “And I ran on the promise of not simply repealing Obamacare and returning to the status quo but offering something better. The House-passed bill doesn’t achieve these goals.”

Some advocates had no doubt other lawmakers would continue the work on mental health policy. Many lawmakers are fueled by their own family experiences with mental illness, said Ingoglia. “I do think somebody will emerge,” he said.

Covall added that lawmakers come and go, but mental health “is bigger than any one individual.”

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