Massachusetts House Passes Comprehensive Behavioral Health Legislation

BOSTON –The Massachusetts House of Representatives passed on Thursday, June 16, 2022, comprehensive legislation addressing longstanding issues with our behavioral health care delivery system. The bill focuses on acute psychiatric care and crisis response, youth behavioral health initiatives, community-based behavioral health services, investments in the workforce, and enforcement of existing behavioral health parity laws.   

Photo by William Zhang

“This bill represents yet another step towards meeting the mental health needs of residents, and particularly children, in the Commonwealth. In part due to the challenges of the last few years, we all recognize the increasing demand for these services,” said Representative Haggerty. “We must continue to advance measures that require us to deal with crisis response in the mental health sector and that includes helping to address the labor shortage, valuing behavioral health as we do physical health, and better support for young people living with behavioral health challenges.”  

Highlights of the bill include:   

Initiatives to address emergency department boarding:   

  • Creating online portals that provide access to real-time data on youth and adults seeking mental health and substance use services, including a function that allows health care providers to easily search and find open beds   
  • Requiring the Health Policy Commission (HPC) to prepare and publish a report every three years on the status of pediatric behavioral health   
  • Codifying an expedited psychiatric inpatient admissions (EPIA) advisory council to reduce hospital emergency department boarding, including a protocol to expedite placement into appropriate care settings for patients under the age of 18  

    988 implementation and 911 expansion:   

    This legislation seeks to increase behavioral health care access across the Commonwealth through the implementation of the nationwide 988 hotline to access 24/7 suicide prevention and behavioral health crisis services. This legislation also expands 911 to bridge the gap until 988 is implemented by increasing training, funding, and capacity for regional emergency responses to behavioral health crises.   

    Red flag laws and Extreme Risk Protection Order:  

    This bill initiates a public awareness campaign on the Commonwealth’s red flag laws and Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPOs), passed by the Legislature in 2018, that limit access to guns for people at risk of hurting themselves or others.  

    Full-system accountability for parity:   

    This bill tackles disparities in mental health and other forms of health care by giving the state additional tools to enforce existing parity laws, such as:   
  • Requiring licensed mental health professionals to be available during all operating hours of an emergency department (including via telehealth)  
  • Codifying hospital clinical competencies and operational standards and directing the Department of Mental Health (DMH) to establish a complaint process for alleged violations  
  • Directing DMH to create a comprehensive plan to address access to continuing care beds, intensive residential treatment programs, and community-based programs for patients awaiting discharge from acute psychiatric hospital units  
  • Implementing mental health watch reforms in correctional settings, including changes to the referral to mental health process for those who are incarcerated or detained, and establishing a process for a person on mental health watch for longer than 72 hours to petition to be transferred   

    School-based behavioral health services and programming:   
  • Limiting the use of suspension and expulsion in all licensed early education and care programs  
  • Requiring school districts to adopt a behavioral health crisis response plan which may be based on a cost-neutral model plan to be developed by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education   
  • Creating a statewide program to help schools implement school-based behavioral health services  

    Access points for youth for effective behavioral health treatment:   
  • Creating a complex care resolution panel to ensure children with complex behavioral health needs are assisted quickly and with cross-agency support and coordination  
  • Requiring behavioral health assessments and referrals for children entering the foster care system  
  • Empowering the Office of the Child Advocate (OCA) to receive complaints from children and families and to assist them in resolving issues with access to behavioral health services  

    Expanded insurance coverage:   

    This legislation requires insurance coverage of critical behavioral health services, including:   
  • Emergency service programs  
  • Services provided under psychiatric collaborative care models  
  • Mental health acute treatment, community-based acute treatment, and intensive community-based acute treatment without prior authorization  
  • Annual mental health wellness exams  

    Workforce investments:   

    This proposal builds upon the Behavioral Health Trust Fund by carving out specific grant programs for health care providers, which would finance:    
  • Workforce Pipeline Investments: a scholarship program to support a culturally, ethnically, and linguistically diverse behavioral health workforce, with a focus on clinicians who commit to serving high-need populations.   
  • Integrated Care: a grant program to expand integrated care models that enable providers to expand their practices to provide behavioral health care in primary care settings  
  • Support for Providers: a grant program to promote the mental health and wellbeing of providers 

    Behavioral health parity implementation and enforcement:  

    This legislation tackles the disparity by health plans to reimburse mental health services at lower rates than other forms of health care by providing the Commonwealth additional tools to enforce existing parity laws and promote compliance.   

    This legislation enhances oversight of parity compliance by:  
  • Requiring carriers to comply with annual reporting requirements   
  • Directing the Division of Insurance (DOI) to review and ensure insurer compliance with parity laws  
  • Authorizing the Office of Patient Protection (OPP) to identify and refer potential parity violations that arise during OPP grievance reviews to the DOI and the AG’s office  

    “An Act addressing barriers to care for mental health” (H.4879) passed the House of Representatives 155-0 after a similar version of this legislation passed in the Massachusetts State Senate. The legislation moves back to the Senate for further consideration.   
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