Senator Collins: Pass Legislation to Better Coordinate Mental Health Services for Children

WASHINGTON, D.C.—In testimony prepared for delivery before the Senate Subcommittee on Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) today called for passage of her legislation, The Keeping Families Together Act, to enable federal and state agencies to work together to develop more coordinated systems of care for children with serious mental illnesses and their families.

“The Keeping Families Together Act … would help to reduce the barriers to care for children with serious mental health needs and would assist states in eliminating the practice of parents relinquishing custody of their children solely for the purpose of securing mental health services,” said Senator Collins. “I urge all members of the subcommittee to work with me so that we can get this legislation passed and signed into law before the end of the year.

“Parents should not be bounced from agency to agency, knocking on every door they come to, in the hope that they will happen upon someone who has an answer. It simply should not be such a struggle for parents to get services and treatment for their children,” she said.

Senator Collins, who chairs the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, held hearings in July 2003 to examine the difficult challenges faced by families of children with mental illnesses. During the hearings, witnesses pointed out that as many as 20 percent of American children under the age of 17 suffer from a mental, emotional, or behavioral illness. In addition, the GAO estimated that in 2001, parents placed more than 12,700 children into the child welfare or juvenile justice systems so that these children could receive mental health services.

Senator Collins’ bill, cosponsored by Sens. Norm Coleman (R-MN), Mark Pryor (D-AR), and Gordon Smith (R-OR), would take a three-pronged approach to create coordinated support systems to treat and provide services to children with serious emotional disturbances. Reps. Jim Ramstad (R-MN), Patrick Kennedy (D-RI), Michael Castle (R-DE), and Pete Stark (D-CA) sponsored the House version of the legislation.

The bill, which is based on the recommendations of a General Accounting Office (GAO) report issued in April 2003 that was requested by Senator Collins and two members of the House of Representatives, would

— Provide grants to states to create infrastructure to support and sustain statewide systems of care to serve these children more effectively and efficiently while keeping them with their families;
— Establish a federal interagency task force to examine and make recommendations regarding mental health issues in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems; and
— Remove statutory barriers that currently prevent more states from using the Medicaid home- and community-services waiver to serve children with serious mental health conditions.

To further help these families, Senator Collins will pursue passage of three other bills that she has cosponsored. These are

— The Family Opportunity Act, which would allow states to create a new eligibility category for Medicaid to cover children with physical or mental illness whose family income exceeds state requirements. States could require families to pay monthly premiums for these services, based on their income levels.

— The Mental Health Equitable Treatment Act of 2003, which would require insurers to cover mental illness in the same way that they cover a physical illness.

— The Child Healthcare Crisis Relief Act, which includes incentives, such as scholarship and student loan forgiveness programs, to help recruit and retain child mental health professionals. It also would expand and create programs to train child mental health professionals.