On November 17, Senator Sal DiDomenico and his Massachusetts Senate colleagues unanimously passed An Act addressing barriers to care for mental health – also known as Mental Health ABC Act 2.0 – comprehensive legislation to continue the process of reforming the way mental health care is delivered in Massachusetts. This legislation comes at a time when the Massachusetts Senate is making landmark investments in mental and behavioral health, including $400 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to transform the behavioral health sector, with $122 million dedicated to recruiting and retaining nearly 2,000 behavioral professionals. On November 24, the Massachusetts House referred An Act addressing barriers to care for mental health to its Committee on Ways and Means.
The Mental Health addressing barriers to care (ABC) Act 2.0 is driven by the recognition that mental health is as important as physical health for every resident of the Commonwealth and should be treated as such. The bill proposes a wide variety of reforms to ensure equitable access to mental health care and remove barriers to care by supporting the behavioral health workforce.
“For too long, mental health has been overlooked within our health care system, leaving many Massachusetts residents without access to the critical services and treatment that they need,” said DiDomenico. “As we know, the COVID-19 pandemic has only increased the need for critical mental health resources, which are just as important as those for physical health…I am proud of the steps my colleagues in the Senate and I have taken to remove barriers and increase parity in mental health care.”
Some of the Senate bill’s amendments focus on suicide prevention and mental health care for people who are incarcerated. DiDomenico filed an amendment which was adopted in the final bill. His amendment mandates the Department of Youth Services as a collaborator in developing the annual plan for promotion of behavioral health with the newly developed office of behavioral health promotion, which would bring an experienced voice in violence prevention and trauma-specific intervention and rehabilitation. Additionally, the Office of Behavioral Health Promotion would be tasked with identifying and disseminating evidence-based practices to prevent violence through trauma-specific intervention and rehabilitation.
“The fact of the matter is that a lot of behavioral health cannot be addressed without also the influences of community violence and its surrounding trauma. This has touched all of our districts, including mine,” said DiDomenico. “As we all know, the work surrounding violence prevention, at-risk youth, and trauma-informed treatments is far from over. But I am excited to have this amendment provide progress and to continue our work with our often-overlooked communities”.
The Senate’s final bill establishes a task force dedicated to addressing the aftereffects of a confirmed suicide and requires the Department of Public Health (DPH) to collect data on the physical location of suicides and the number of known attempts made by any person at the same location. It also directs the state 911 department to integrate training on identification of and response to callers experiencing behavioral health crises into the certification standards for 911 workers, and in anticipation of the establishment of a new national 988 hotline in July, designates one or more 988 crisis hotline centers to provide crisis intervention services and crisis care coordination to individuals accessing the suicide prevention and behavioral health crisis hotline – 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The Senate’s final bill also allows people who are incarcerated experiencing acute mental health distress to petition to seek proper care in a Department Mental Health facility as opposed to being subjected to in-prison “mental health watch,” establishes a special commission to review and make recommendations to remedy administrative burdens to accessing mental health care and behavioral health care services, and requires the Office of Behavioral Health Promotion to ascertain the mental health needs of veterans.