Our View: Mental Health Awareness Month ends but little has changed – GoErie.com

Whenever a resolution designating May “Mental Health Awareness Month” comes to the floor of the PA House of Representatives it passes unanimously.
State Rep. Dan Miller, D-Allegheny County, means no disrespect because he genuinely appreciates the sentiment, but it’s frustrating that the universal, bipartisan support evaporates in the face of bills that actually do something tangible for the growing number of Pennsylvanians wrestling with mental health-related issues.
“Legislation must follow those resolutions,” Miller said Wednesday. “Are you creating, developing and funding resources that make a difference in people’s lives?”
Miller has one of those pieces of legislation. It’d create a web-based registry that’d give hospital emergency rooms and other acute care providers a real-time look at the number of mental health beds currently available at every acute care treatment facility in the state, their contact information, the services they can provide on a given night at each location, the level of security they maintain and the types of patients they’re able to accept at that moment.
Incredibly, Pennsylvania doesn’t have a single unified system to identify and facilitate these placements, which means emergency room nurses waste precious hours on the phone calling around to treatment facilities in an effort to find beds for patients who are in the throes of a mental health crisis.
Just as incredibly, Miller has now introduced this particular bill in four different legislative sessions and it has never made it out of the House Health Committee. In fact, it’s never gotten to a committee-level vote.
And make no mistake. This is an important piece of legislation.
The editorial board of two newspapers in the USA Today Network — Pennsylvania recently spoke with the executive director of an organization that aids collaboration and creates partnerships among health services providers in Bucks County to identify and address gaps in health services.
Asked what she viewed as the top mental health-related item on the wish lists of providers affiliated with the Bucks County Health Improvement Partnership, Kimberly M. Everett didn’t hesitate.
“A bed board that’s standardized,” she said.
Because, in her opinion, a hospital emergency room may well be the worst place for someone in the midst of a mental health crisis to tread water for several hours or, worse, a few days. That’s a situation that isn’t good for the patient or the staff. Hospital ERs generally aren’t equipped to manage such patients, and Everett noted that acts of violence against hospital workers are on the rise.
Often it takes hours or days to identify an appropriate placement, find out if it has a bed available, obtain all the necessary clearances and signatures and arrange for transportation. Sometimes the patient will tire of waiting around in the ER and go home without receiving needed treatment. In that case, his or her mental state not only didn’t get addressed but was also likely exacerbated by a frustrating experience at the hospital.
That’s, in fact, what happened to a family in Miller’s legislative district and the patient died by suicide after leaving the hospital. For Miller, who served as a volunteer with the Mt. Lebanon Fire Department, that was the case that inspired him to push this legislation for the better part of a decade.
“There’s a window of opportunity to provide help and any delay can make a difference,” Miller said.
Asked why the bed registry idea hasn’t gained traction in Harrisburg, Miller says it comes down to dollars and the sense of partisanship that pervades Harrisburg. It doesn’t cost anything to pass a “Mental Health Awareness Month” resolution. But Miller’s bill comes with a price tag for getting such a system up and running.
As for the partisanship, Miller pointed out that mental illness isn’t a red or blue district problem. It’s something that ought to bring both sides of the aisle together.
“I’d gladly hand the bill over to a Republican to get it done and I’d applaud at the bill signing,” he said.
There is a Republican who has been pursuing a similar bill in the state Senate for almost as long as Miller. However, the most-recent bill introduced by Camera Bartolotta, whose 46th District covers all of Greene County and parts of Washington and Beaver counties, would make registry participation voluntary for treatment facilities.
Everett would prefer a mandate. We concur. But even with that concession, only one version of Bartolotta’s bill — introduced at the beginning of the 2017-2018 session — managed to escape from the Senate’s Health and Human Services Committee. It died in the Senate’s Appropriations Committee.
Our nation is in the grips of a mental health crisis that has only deepened due to a COVID-19 pandemic that contributed to the deaths of more than 1 million Americans, separated us from family and friends, closed many of our businesses, threatened our livelihoods, ushered our children into a dispiriting period of remote and hybrid learning, and compelled us to wear masks and argue endlessly about them.
This is a struggle requiring action on many fronts. Everett noted that our society simply must do more to destigmatize mental health issues and our state and federal governments need to take bold steps address a damaging shortage of psychiatrists here and across the country and fix reimbursement rates to hospitals handling mental health cases.
Now is certainly not the time to let bills designed to address our mental health languish. We challenge state Sen. Michele Brooks, R-50, and state Rep. Kathy Rapp, R-65, who chair the Senate Health and Human Services and House Health committees, respectively, to get mental health-related bills moving. Vote the bad bills down and send them back to the drawing board. Get the good ones out of committee and to a floor vote.
Voting for a resolution to name May “Mental Health Awareness Month” is akin to talking the talk. Now walk the walk.


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