Blog Editor’s Note: Last month, the Excellence in Mental Health Act, was passed and signed into law. This landmark legislation aims to improve and expand mental health and substance use disorder treatment by increasing access to qualified community programs. The Excellence Act resulted from years of advocacy efforts on behalf of people struggling with addiction and mental illness. At the forefront of these efforts was the National Council for Behavioral Health, an organization whose members include more than 2,000 treatment providers across the country. Here, National Council President and CEO Linda Rosenberg, MSW, discusses this historic act and what it means for those seeking help.
Phoenix House: What is the significance of the Excellence Act?
Linda Rosenberg: Often, people struggling with chronic mental health and addiction— from all walks of life—are driven into poverty because of their illness. They depend upon services that are often paid for by Medicaid. The Excellence Act is about helping these individuals by giving community providers more tools to deliver comprehensive, high quality care. It gives more Medicaid to states for services delivered at Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics. These designated centers must provide 24-hour crisis availability in outpatient settings, linkages to primary care, and other critical services.
PH: How do you see the Excellence Act impacting our ability to bridge the gap between the many who need addiction and mental health treatment and the few who receive it?
LR: We hope this will provide the opportunity for incremental improvement. More services will be available in more communities. Those in need of services and their families will know where they can get help. A big issue—beyond the stigma of addiction and mental illness—is that families often don’t know where to go. Serious mental illnesses and addictions are chronic conditions; they don’t just go away after 28 days of treatment. So, the Excellence Act will help people manage this chronic condition by bringing the community back into care. It increases ‘one stop shopping,’ meaning that individuals can find the resources they need under one roof.
PH: Tell us about the advocacy efforts on behalf of this act. It sounds like many different partners came together to push this legislation through.
LR: Absolutely. This legislation was first introduced in 2009. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) was and continued to be the legislation’s sponsor and champion. Her dad had bi-polar disorder and suffered for many years until he was successfully treated, so she’s passionate about this issue. She was relentless! Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO) became co-sponsor and in the House Doris Matsui (D-CA) and Leonard Lance (R-NJ) were sponsors. It was a bipartisan effort that ultimately got the support of both the House and Senate leadership. It was a political masterpiece, in the best sense.
We have our boots on the ground in Washington, but the real credit goes to our members who urged support for the bill and rallied support in their home states. It’s been a journey for everyone involved, but it’s been a short time in the scheme of things. Most pieces of legislation languish and the very few that move often take many years.
PH: You talked about politicians like Debbie Stabenow and Roy Blunt reaching across the aisle on this issue. Does this give you hope for future bipartisan support of expanded mental health services?
If you’ve seen the film Lincoln, you know that partisanship has been around for a long time. Disagreement and strong partisan views seem to be part of our democracy. But I’m an optimist and the Excellence Act proved good things can and do happen!
PH: This is clearly a huge milestone. What more needs to be done to improve mental health care? What can ordinary people do?
LR: The Excellence Act is a “demonstration project,” meaning the government is trying it out in eight states. But it needs to expand across the country. Ordinary people can email and call their elected officials and tell them they want Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics in their communities. May 7 is the National Council’s annual Hill Day and we have about 1,000 people going to Capitol Hill with vital messages.
Our three messages are: increased funding for treatment through SAMHSA grants; the passage of the Behavioral Health IT Act; and the Mental Health First Aid Act, which educates people about mental health and substance use disorders and gives them the tools to help in an emergency.
People in recovery and those who love them are huge assets when we advocate for these issues. But it’s important to remember that sharing recovery stories isn’t enough. If you have an opportunity to speak to a politician, don’t just say, “I’m in recovery.” Make sure you have an “ask.” Be clear about what you want. The key is to have lawmakers take action.
To learn more about efforts to expand mental health care and how to get involved, sign up for the National Council’s alerts.Back to Index