Obama Challenges the GOP to Keep Its Word on Mental Health Care Funding
Policy + Politics

Obama Challenges the GOP to Keep Its Word on Mental Health Care Funding

© Benoit Tessier / Reuters

After years of Republican insistence that mental health spending and reforms are needed more than tougher gun control laws to prevent mass killings like the one at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, President Obama on Tuesday challenged GOP lawmakers to “put your money where your mouth is.”

Obama proposed $500 million of new spending to increase access to mental health care and to make mental health information more readily available for conducting background checks for gun purchases. The funding would accompany a number of executive actions he plans for tightening restrictions on gun sales by clarifying who should be licensed as a gun dealer and therefore required to conduct background checks on customers.

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“We’re going to ensure that federal mental health records are submitted to the background check system, and remove barriers that prevent states from reporting relevant information,” Obama said yesterday at a press conference. “And for those in Congress who so often rush to blame mental illness for mass shootings as a way of avoiding action on guns, here’s your chance to support these efforts,” he added.

The president called on the Social Security Administration and other federal agencies to report more data to the National Instant Criminal Background Checks System to enhance the quality of gun background checks. He stressed that the vast majority of people suffering from mental health problems are not violent and that they are more likely to be victims of violent crimes – or take their own lives.

But if Obama expects to see congressional action this year on his proposal or others, he may be sadly disappointed. While the president essentially is proposing precisely what many Republicans have called for – namely greater government access to mental health records in reviewing gun purchase applicants – GOP leaders rebuffed the president’s spending proposal. In a highly charged political season, some Republicans are opposing Obama’s decision to once again, issue executive orders to circumvent congressional will.  

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“An unwillingness to find common ground and achieve compromise has been the hallmark of this president’s tenure, and this issue unfortunately is no different,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX), a proponent of improved health care programs, said in a statement. “Rather than unilaterally impose a gun control agenda that’s unlawful and strips the constitutional rights of Americans, the President should better enforce current law and work with Congress on legislation reforming our mental health system.”

Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA), a leading House advocate for overhauling the mental health system, was less dismissive of the president’s spending proposal but said he opposed the executive branch meddling with lawmaking. “There is a big difference between funding ‘mental health programs’ and enacting reforms addressing serious mental illness,” Murphy said in a statement. “More money into our disastrously failed and antiquated system will only result in more lives lost.”

The debate over mental health reforms at the federal, state and local levels necessary to help curb gun violence and other violent acts is enormously complex and comes at a time when many states have cut their mental health care budgets or are merely treading water in attempting to provide adequate services, according to experts.

State governments cut mental health spending by roughly $4 billion during the Great Recession, according to one estimate. A report by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) released in December found that only 23 states increased mental health spending in 2015, compared to 36 states than increased funding in 2013 and 29 who raised it in 2014. The other states froze their budgets or cut back spending.

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NAMI highlighted a major disparity between the “great deal of rhetoric in recent years about the broken mental health system in America and the need to invest in services that work in helping people living with mental illness to recover and reach their full potential.”

That report was issued three years after the Dec. 14, 2012 tragedy at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut when 20-year-old Adam Lanza went on a rampage and fatally shot 20 children and 6 adult staff members. Lanza shot and killed his mother before the assault on the school and then subsequently committed suicide.

Since then, there has been a grisly series of gun-related mass killings, in Santa Monica, Calif., Washington, D.C., Ft Hood, Texas, Isla Vista, Calif., Charleston, S.C., Chattanooga, Tenn., Roseburg, Oregon, Colorado Springs and most recently in San Bernardino, Calif.

Ron Honberg, NAMI’s national director of policy and legal affairs, told Roll Call yesterday that his group strongly endorsed Obama’s call for $500 million, but noted that it would have to go through the appropriations process – where it could run into GOP opposition. “I think there’s certainly heightened interest and concern about mental health on both sides of the aisle in Congress right now,” he said. “I’d like to think that there would be strong consideration in Congress.”

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Murphy, a clinical psychologist, is pushing a bill that would increase the number of psychiatric hospital beds available, set new standards for addiction treatment, make it easier for parents of children with psychological problems to work with their doctors, and create a new cabinet-level position to foster improved mental health care. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) recently lauded the bill as a potential model for legislation. Cornyn’s Mental Health and Safe Communities Act, among other things, would clarify language regarding the mental health records that can be submitted to the national background check system and addresses the process to restore an individual’s ability to purchase a gun.

Republicans have floated other proposals as well, but so far, there is no consensus on how – or whether – to try to pass major legislation this year.