December 16th, 2010

Bill would extend technology assistance to mental health providers

Time is running out, but Congress is considering legislation that would amend the Public Health Service Act and the Social Security Act to extend health information technology assistance eligibility to mental health and addiction treatment providers and facilities.

The Health Information Technology Extension for Behavioral Health Services Act of 2010 would add mental health and substance abuse professionals, psychiatric hospitals, substance abuse treatment facilities and community mental health centers to those eligible for electronic health record incentive payments established under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA). Companion bills were introduced in the Senate (by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-RI, with 10 co-sponsors) and the House (by outgoing Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-RI, with 80 co-sponsors).

The ARRA provided $20 billion in incentives and grants to hospitals and health care systems to establish electronic health record systems nationwide. Incentives were extended to most physicians, chiropractors, dentists, optometrists, podiatrists and hospitals. “Unfortunately, the resources that the Obama administration put out there to help providers adopt health information technology excluded community-based mental health providers,” says Andrew Sperling, NAMI’s director of federal legislative advocacy. Sperling says no one claims it was an intentional exclusion, but these incentives “are important, because community-based mental health providers have a long way to go to catch up in the health care field in terms of electronic medical records.”

Among the benefits, the grants and incentives can purchase, enhance or train personnel in the use of health information technology; improve the secure electronic exchange of health information; and assist with the implementation of telemedicine, including facilitation of distance clinical consultations in rural and underserved areas.

As of mid-November, the House legislation was in the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Health, while the Senate version was in the Senate Finance Committee. Sessions resumed in mid-November. Because of November’s election, many lawmakers considering the legislation will not be in the next Congress. Thus, the legislation is being considered in what is commonly referred to as a “lame duck” session.

Julio C. Abreu, senior director of government affairs for Mental Health America, says the last days of Congress are the most unpredictable. “The House and Senate bills have bipartisan support, which improve the odds of any legislation being enacted. Given that the lead House sponsor, Rep. Patrick Kennedy, is retiring might also serve as additional incentive to enact this bill this year.

“All mental health providers, family members and consumers will need to activate their networks to apply pressure on their senators and representatives to urge the House and Senate Leadership to enact this bill,” Abreu says.

“It will be extremely difficult for (mental health and addiction providers) to implement expensive new technologies without the assistance that Congress recognized as crucial to encouraging implementation of HIT by other kinds of providers – many of whom do not struggle as much with inadequate funding and reimbursement.

“A person’s behavioral health must be treated as an integral part of a person’s overall health status and thus mental health and addiction treatment providers must be included in the appropriate, privacy-protected exchange of electronic health information,” Abreu says. “In considering treatment options, behavioral health providers should be aware of other health conditions a person may be facing and other health care providers likewise should be aware of any behavioral health concerns. Implementation of HIT and electronic health record exchange would greatly improve awareness of a person’s overall health status among all health care providers including behavioral health,” he adds.

Seth Larson, spokesperson for Sen. Whitehouse, says they are not giving up on the bill this year, but if it does not make it out of committee this session “this is certainly an issue that Sen. Whitehouse is committed to and we would fully plan to reintroduce the bill next year barring something unseen.”

By Pamela Berard

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