Bennet, Cornyn Call on Congress to Drastically Reimagine America’s Mental and Behavioral Health Care System

New White Paper Outlines Senators’ Bold Vision for Significantly Reforming Mental Health In America in Light of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Alamosa –– Today, U.S. Senators Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas), members of the Senate Finance Committee, released A Bold Vision for America’s Mental Well-being,” a white paper outlining a new framework for reimagining and redesigning how mental and behavioral health care is delivered in the United States. The white paper calls for a bold, unified national strategy that is based on smart resource planning and funding, and addresses the country’s mental and behavioral health crisis through local community needs. The senators sent the new white paper to the Senate Finance Committee in a letter to Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Ranking Member Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) expressing their interest in working together this year to create a stronger mental and behavioral health care system for all Americans.

“[L]ocal communities have faced unprecedented challenges in their attempt to address increases in suicides, drug overdose deaths, and most alarmingly – pediatric mental health issues,” wrote Bennet and Cornyn in the letter. “A lack of Federal coordination and administrative burden often prevents local communities from addressing their current needs when they are happening, until it is too late.”

“The Senate Finance Committee has a unique opportunity to create generational change for Americans today and to sustain this focus moving forward. We believe that there are deep, systemic issues with the way that mental and behavioral health services are delivered that warrants bold action to redesign the system and we should reject incremental changes,” the senators continued. “[W]e are hopeful we can create better mental and behavioral well-being for all in the United States.”

“Mental health is truly one of the most significant bipartisan policy issues out there,” said Dr. Benjamin Miller, President of Well Being Trust. “Having two Senate leaders emerge with a plan that tackles mental health in a thoughtful and comprehensive way is what our nation needs now. From thinking more critically about our workforce and the role of community to solutions that integrate mental health, these Senators have offered a profound way forward that if pursued, could benefit countless families in our nation.”

“We thank Senators Bennet and Cornyn and support the call for Congress to embrace a bold and unified national strategy to address our mental health crisis. At Mental Health America, our screening data confirms that not only were we already in a national mental health crisis prior to 2020, but the past year has brought a dramatic escalation in the numbers of individuals, especially youth and those in communities of color, seeking help for anxiety, depression and thoughts of suicide or self-harm,” said Schroeder Stribling, President and CEO of Mental Health America. “We know that prevention, early identification, an equity focus and accessibility for all are of paramount importance and we look forward to working together on legislative proposals to move us forward.” 

“We live in a time of an unprecedented and rapid change—and it is straining all generations in unbelievable ways,” said Daniel H. Gillison Jr., CEO of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). “People need help—and too often can’t find it.  We’re grateful to Senators Bennet and Cornyn for their timely and important call to redesign and improve access to mental health care.”

"I applaud Senators Bennet and Cornyn for calling for an aggressive national response to our mental health and addiction crisis, which continues to cause untold harm to individuals, families, and communities,” said former U.S. Representative Patrick J. Kennedy, founder of The Kennedy Forum. “Policymakers must end our separate and unequal system of care for those with mental health and substance use disorders by prioritizing early intervention, integration with physical health, and parity in how health care delivery is financed."

“We are thrilled to see that Senators Bennet and Cornyn are rethinking the way legislators approach mental health by acknowledging that social-emotional development starts from birth. Infant and early childhood mental health is the bedrock of brain development. The earliest years offer the chance to promote strong emotional development from the start, but babies can and do experience mental health problems, especially when exposed to chronic stress and trauma. However, many caregivers lack access to the supports they need to address the often-complex mental health issues impacting babies and families. The approach laid out by the senators would build on the pioneering efforts of the mental health community, integrating the entirety of the care continuum–beginning at birth–into a national strategy for mental health. We look forward to working with the Senate Finance Committee to modernize the mental health system to be responsive to the unique, developmentally appropriate approaches young children and their caregivers need,” said Dr. Myra Jones-Taylor, Chief Policy Officer of ZERO TO THREE.

The new white paper highlights how the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic exacerbated the mental and behavioral health crisis in this country, increasing poor outcomes across the entire human lifespan and magnifying disparities for underserved communities, including Black, brown, and LGBTQ+ communities. As demand increases in the short-term, the white paper calls for resources to address immediate needs, while urging smart policy and resource planning and a unified, bold strategy for collective mental and behavioral health improvement.

Bennet and Cornyn are proposing establishing a national strategy to modernize the ??U.S. mental and behavioral health system based on principles designed to:

  • Integrate mental health more seamlessly throughout delivery and financing options to assume better ease of access;
  • Enhance delivery within local communities through innovative workforce and program modernization and coordination;
  • Update mental and behavioral care programs to improve availability, cost management, and quality; and
  • Improve how federal funds and other resources are planned for and allocated for to increase the return on our nation’s investment through better mental and behavioral health outcomes. 

The white paper also outlines key steps that Congress must take this year to improve mental and behavioral health.

  • Step 1: Rapid Response: Congress needs to act in the short-term to address glaring and obvious needs that communities across the country are struggling to address during a national health emergency that continues to this day.
  • Step 2: Relationship Adjustment: Congress should use the legislative process to reimagine the relationship between how the federal government funds and engages with local communities.
  • Step 3: Redesign the System: Congress will establish a strategy for redesigning mental and behavioral health services in America, including improved funding mechanisms.
  • Step 4: Reevaluate Continuously: Congress can use an annual update process to drive meaningful reform incrementally and improve the feedback loop between the American people’s experience and the federal government’s response.

To help inform a forthcoming legislative package, Bennet and Cornyn are seeking input from experts, community leaders, and constituents on policies to help achieve intended outcomes laid out in their white paper. Anyone may provide feedback to by October 8, 2021.

In July, Bennet and Cornyn reintroduced the Suicide and Crisis Outreach Prevention Enhancement Act, which would increase funding for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (NSPL) program to $50 million per year, provide greater flexibility for participants to raise awareness of the services they offer, and collect vital statistics to help understand and reduce disparities.

In June, Bennet and U.S. Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) introduced the Medication Access and Training Expansion (MATE) Act to require prescribers of highly addictive medication, like opioids, to complete a substance use training to ensure they have foundational knowledge of addiction prevention, treatment, and medication management. 

Read the full white paper HERE.