BOSTON — The state Senate on Wednesday approved a sweeping mental health bill aimed at easing barriers to care and improving behavioral health services.
The legislation, which passed on a 39-0 vote, would would set a floor for the rates insurers must pay for mental health services and require them to cover same-day psychiatric services and emergency stabilization services.
It would also require insurers to cover annual mental health exams, similar to wellness checks.
“Too many people in Massachusetts struggle to access the mental health services they need,” Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro, one of the bill’s primary sponsors, said in remarks ahead of Wednesday’s vote. “The reasons are many, and they are intricate. Mental health care is treated different than physical health, it’s often not covered by insurance, it’s expensive, and it’s hard to talk about.”
Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, said an essential element of the proposal is the integration of behavioral health and primary care services.
“This bill breaks down barriers between providers, particularly between providers of physical and mental health care,” Tarr said in remarks.
The measure also seeks to address a labor shortage in the mental health system that has contributed to a shortage of beds at psychiatric facilities. It would shorten the amount of time it takes for newly hired mental health professionals to be approved by insurance networks to treat patients, among other changes.
Lawmakers filed more than 70 amendments to the bill, many of which were withdrawn or rejected before the chamber approved the final version.
Among the amendments that were adopted is one creating a “988” crisis hotline to provide intervention services 24-hours-a-day, seven- days-a-week.
Tarr and Sen. Diana DiZoglio, D-Methuen, got a provision added to the bill that will create a new commission to study the rate of suicide and the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety among returning veterans.
Approval of the legislation comes as Beacon Hill is preparing to plow hundreds of millions of dollars into the state’s overwhelmed mental health system.
Last week, the Senate approved a plan to divert $400 million in federal relief funds and surplus revenues to improve behavioral health care in the state.
Recent studies support claims that mental health issues are growing — even as the pandemic subsides — especially among young people.
Lockdowns, business and school closings and restrictions on social gatherings to prevent the spread of the virus, coupled with a lack of access to in-person services, exacerbated a mental health treatment gap, medical experts say. Low-income communities and minorities have been disproportionately affected.
More than 20% of teen hospitalizations between Jan. 1 and March 31 were for psychiatric emergencies, not COVID-19, according to federal health data.
Last month, a coalition of groups including the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a warning that the youth mental health crisis is a “national emergency.”
Meanwhile, a shortage of staffing and beds in mental health units means adults and children end up “boarding” in emergency rooms while waiting for services.
Last month, an average of 600 individuals per week were being boarded in hospitals awaiting beds in psychiatric facilities, according to state data.
While state and federal laws require behavioral health services be treated by insurers the same as physical health care, lawmakers and advocates say it doesn’t always work that way. The measure approved Wednesday would stiffen penalties for insurers that treat mental and physical health differently.
The Senate approved a similar bill last year but the legislation was scuttled after much of the Legislature’s work was sidelined at the outset of the pandemic.
The bill now moves to the House of Representatives for consideration, which must craft its own proposal before sending it to Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.