Developments at the federal and state levels suggest lawmakers are beginning to better understand the nature of the co-occurring disorders
By Jason LangendorfMarch 30, 2021
Recent announcements from a bipartisan group of U.S. representatives and a state senator suggest that lawmakers are beginning to get the message that a new, integrated policy approach to addiction is needed.
Last month, U.S. representatives Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), Ann McLane Kuster (D-N.H.), David Trone (D-Md.) and Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.) announced the creation of the Bipartisan Addiction and Mental Health Task Force, which merges the Freshmen Working Group on Addiction and the Bipartisan Opioid Task Force (headed up by those same members).
“The mental health and opioid epidemics sweeping across Pennsylvania and our nation have only been further compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Fitzpatrick. “The pandemic has created new barriers for our citizens with pre-existing mental illnesses and substance use disorders and generated new issues for our citizens previously unaffected. Our Bipartisan Addiction and Mental Health Task Force team is ready to educate, raise awareness and take immediate action to provide support and hope to the millions of struggling people across our country.”
That announcement was followed by a press conference led by New York state senator Pete Harckham last week on the steps of the State Capitol in Albany, expressing support for a similar merger at the state level to create an Office of Mental Health, Addiction and Wellness.
Preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found record-high numbers of overdose deaths—86,000 individuals—in the 12-month period ending in July 2020. The CDC’s numbers indicate a rise in adverse mental health symptoms during the same period overlapping the pandemic.
Individuals who receive integrated mental health and substance services show better clinical improvements and report better treatment satisfaction. Getting patients out of ‘siloed’ treatment is better for them, and it is better for their providers.”—Samra G. Brouk, New York state senator
In the 116th Congress, the Bipartisan Opioid Task Force and Freshmen Working Group on Addiction combined to introduce dozens of bills addressing addiction, the opioid epidemic and the mental health crisis. The new Bipartisan Addiction and Mental Health Task Force will host regular meetings with stakeholders, attend site visits and create policies meant to save lives, with a 2021 legislative agenda aimed at addressing public health crises that have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Merging Forces in New York
Meanwhile, New York’s Harckham, chair of the Senate Committee on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse, has been at the front of a group that has proposed merging the state’s Office of Mental Health (OMH) and Office of Addiction Services and Supports (OASAS). It has yet to receive the full backing of the State Assembly, but the proposal has been added to the Senate’s one-house budget plan.
“The purpose of the merger is to provide a more patient-centered agency focused on holistic care and co-occurring disorders while reducing barriers to treatment and funding,” says Harckham. “Once created, this new agency will be better positioned to establish behavioral health parity—equal treatment of mental health conditions and substance use disorders—to an extent that patients and families will benefit in meaningful ways.”
As experts continue to find more and stronger links between addiction and mental health, the agendas of these groups—and other legislative bodies that reflect an understanding of the connection between these dual crises—figure to be increasingly important in creating effective policy for all.
Says New York state senator Samra G. Brouk, chair of the Senate Committee on Mental Health, of her support for a state Office of Mental Health, Addiction and Wellness: “The integration of these agencies reflects what we know about better outcomes: Individuals who receive integrated mental health and substance services show better clinical improvements and report better treatment satisfaction. Getting patients out of ‘siloed’ treatment is better for them, and it is better for their providers.”