U.S. Senators Smith, Murkowski Continue Work to Expand Mental Health Services with New Package of Bipartisan Legislation

Senators Introduce COVID-19 Behavioral Health Support Act and Emergency Support for Substance Use Disorders Act

U.S. Senators Tina Smith (D-Minn.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) introduced two bipartisan bills to address behavioral health needs and substance use disorders during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The COVID-19 Behavioral Health Support Act would authorize $150 million in grants to States, Tribes, Tribal organizations and community-based organizations for training, technology upgrades, surge capacity needs, emergency crisis intervention, suicide prevention, and outreach to underserved communities.

The senators also introduced their bipartisan Emergency Support for Substance Use Disorders Act, which aims to address substance use disorders through harm reduction services. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) would help administer these grants and would prioritize resources for areas with higher drug overdose death rates, telemedicine and workforce needs, prevention and recovery supports, and efforts to reduce stigma.

Both bills would prioritize awards for grantees that are culturally specific and intentional about serving populations where COVID-19 has had the most impact.

“We often talk about the shortage of mental health and substance use disorder services, and Sen. Murkowski and I are focused on tackling these problems and finding solutions,” said Senator Smith. “We are more than three months into this pandemic and it’s been more than two months since passage of the last bill to address the effects of COVID-19. We’ve seen how the expansion of telehealth coverage has been a lifeline for many Americans, but there’s more we can do. Our bipartisan bills are an important step to expand access to mental health and substance use disorder services.”

“Unfortunately, the isolation measures that were put in place to help stop the spread of COVID-19 have elevated rates of substance use disorders in Alaska—rates that were already concerning even before the pandemic. On top of that, we continue to hear warnings from national and global health officials that this global health crisis will soon be followed by a mental health crisis,” said Senator Murkowski. “Many providers and health organizations, some who were already strapped for resources, are now in need of additional staff, technology, and support to help meet this growing demand. I’m proud to partner with Senator Smith on legislative efforts to ensure that Alaskan providers have the financial backing they need to continue their treatment, education, and outreach efforts during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“Since the beginning of the Pandemic, there have been noticeable increases in cases of anxiety, depression and other mental health diseases.  At the same time it is more difficulty to find care as many providers have less capacity due to workforce and financial issues.  The COVID-19 Behavioral Health Support Act, introduced by Senator Lisa Murkowski, will help give people access to the care they need,” Said Jim Myers, Chief Executive Officer of Alaska Behavioral Health.

“I appreciate Senator Murkowski for being proactive and providing leadership in addressing behavioral health needs, specifically Substance Use Disorders (SUD) during these unprecedented times of uncertainty and change resulting from this pandemic. I consider the current situation to be by far the most challenging times in my 38 years as a SUD professional,” said Jerry A. Jenkins, M.Ed., LADAC, MAC, Principal of Innovative Services of Alaska.

You can access bill text for the COVID-19 Behavioral Health Support Act here and bill text for the Emergency Support for Substance Use Disorders Act here. You can also access a summary here.

Background: Senators Smith and Murkowski have worked together on a number of bipartisan efforts to expand mental health services. Their Improving Access to Mental Health Services Act—a bill signed into law to expand mental health services for students and communities across the country. That provision was part of a sweeping package that also provided $1.5 billion in funding—supported by Senator Murkowski to deal with the nation’s opioid crisis. Last month, Senators Smith and Murkowski introduced their Tele-Mental Health Improvement Act, which would improve access to tele-mental health during the length of the COVID-19 public health emergency.