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Rep. Tim Murphy: Mental Health Bill Would Make Patients, Communities Safer

In California yesterday, two assembly members proposed a gun restraining order that would allow family members and therapists to ask police and a judge to bar someone from buying a gun.

Lawmakers are also proposing a law that would adopt new protocols for police making well-being checks on people. It would require that police check whether someone has bought a weapon, rather than just talk to them.

The measures are being proposed following the deadly rampage in Santa Barbara, which reignited the debate over what to do about the seriously mentally ill who become violent. Is it possible to make them, and others, safer through legislation?

Republican U.S. Rep.  Tim Murphyof Pennsylvania, who is also a practicing clinical psychologist, thinks so.

He’s lead author of the “ Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act,” which proposes better access to physicians through measures such as creating mental health courts, instead of putting mentally ill patients in criminal courts.

At its heart, the measure backs court-ordered outpatient care, empowers parents and caregivers of people with serious mental illnesses by providing them more information about their loved ones, and gives first responders more guidance.

Murphy joins Here & Now’s Robin Young from Washington to discuss his legislation.

Interview Highlights: Congressman Tim Murphy

On the need to reform patient privacy laws

HIPAA laws were put in place to protect people from being mistreated. They weren’t put in place to prevent people from being treated, and they have gone to that level now. When you have someone who has severe mental illness, oftentimes they are not aware of their illness, and you have to get accurate information, and very often, that is family members. To not be able to get information on mental illness, and history and background and current behavior, it’s like telling an orthopedic surgeon, ‘You’re not allowed to look at an x-ray. We just want you to guess at whether the bone is broken.’ We can’t possibly expect that. So what we see here is not a loosening or relaxing of the HIPAA laws in our bill; it’s clarifying them. Since the time our bill was released, we had hearings about this, we had parents coming to us and saying, ‘You know, I called the doctors, I go to the hospitals, I tell police what the problems are, and I can’t get anyone to listen, and many times, they say, “We can’t even talk to you.”‘ Well, they need to understand, professionals need to understand, you can listen to parents. You can get that information.”

On providing the mentally ill with proper care

“Communities have a right and a need to be safe. Parents care about these folks. Let’s pay attention to this. When some will argue about the person’s right to refuse treatment, shouldn’t we be arguing about their right to to be well? When what we have is that 40 percent of the time, someone’s first interaction with a professional, when there’s serious mental illness, with a policeman, you’re 10 times more likely to be in jail than in a hospital if you’re mentally ill; that half of people in jail have some level of mental illness, the majority of homeless. The list goes on and on. And so I say, the real compassionate thing is to get people treatment, get them care. Look at the wide range of care that can be available, from peer support to professional psychologists, social workers, psychiatrists, medication when it’s needed. And in a moment when someone has completely collapsed and they’re in crisis, rather than leave them on the street, let’s get them in some place, for a short period, where they can get things back together in a protective setting, get them back in treatment. What could be wrong with that? That’s the kind of thing that we know, in the field, helps people who are in the midst of a psychiatric crisis.”

On the how to spend effectively on mental health 

“Right now, we’re spending money in the wrong places. What happened is, we closed hospital beds in the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s and reduced that population down, we increased jails proportionally. So we’re spending in jails, in homeless shelters, on funerals for those 40,000 last year who committed suicide. We’re spending it on people who have lost their jobs and are now getting disability payments. We’re spending billions and billions and billions in these other areas, and we ought to be spending it in smart spending. That’s why part of our bill is also to have accountability for federal agencies and asking them, ‘Where’s your money going? Is it effective?’ If it’s not effective, you lose your funding. If it’s effective, let’s transfer the money there. If it’s redundant, let’s combine it. So we’re getting the money to communities and people. And I believe that when I’ve talked to members, I haven’t heard a single member of Congress saying we shouldn’t be doing that sort of thing.”


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