Remarks to the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare
*** As Prepared for Delivery ***
Hello and thank you for this opportunity to speak with you all today. I am honored to receive this award. I want to thank you all for the work you do as mental health and community based health care workers every day. I would also like to take a moment and recognize my constituents who have travelled nearly 4,000 miles to be here today.
You all provide vitally needed services in our communities and your skills give our children and our elderly patients in particular, the resources to help them get control of their lives and set their lives back on track. As lawmakers, we need to enact good policies and strong legislation that will allow our communities to continue benefiting from your services.
Many of you are familiar with Alaska’s picturesque landscape, from our snow-capped mountains to our abundantly rich rivers and seas – but often people overlook the heavy challenges Alaska faces in addressing some of the worst mental health statistics in our nation. During my time in the United States Senate, I have worked to fill those needs. One of the first health care issues I focused on was Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders. I have introduced legislation with Senator Johnson that would address the “spectrum” of disorders children are born with when their mother drinks during the nine months of pregnancy --- this drinking typically manifests itself into serious and costly life altering mental health conditions. Did you know that the lifetime health costs for an individual afflicted with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is at least $2 million dollars and the overall cost of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in the United States was estimated to be at least $6 billion in 2007?
In most states, like Alaska, South Dakota and those in particular that have large Native American/Native Alaskan populations, there is a disproportionate high number of Fetal Alcohol Disorder cases. But with passage of this legislation, we will be able to provide necessary services for these individuals and their families while continuing our fight to educate women about Fetal Alcohol Disorders -- that are 100 percent preventable.
Another major issue we struggle with in Alaska is youth suicide. The rate of suicide in rural Alaska is consistently twice the national average. In two rural regions, the Northwest Arctic and the Bering Strait, it is six times the national rate. To help address this, I have joined Senator Jack Reed to be the lead Republican on the Community Mental Health Services Improvement Act. This legislation will award grants for demonstration projects to provide coordinated and integrated services to individuals with mental illnesses who have co-occurring primary care and chronic diseases through the co-location of primary and specialty care services in community-based mental and behavioral health settings. In addition, it would deem certain community mental health centers to be automatically designated as having health professional shortage areas for purposes of the National Health Service Corps to ensure mental health professionals are available to provide care. I appreciate your organization’s recognition of this legislation and I know that you all will energetically advocate for your state’s House and Senate members to support our legislation and move it through the Committee process.
Another important federal program that is in need of reauthorization is SAMHSA, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which has not been reauthorized in nearly ten years. As you may know, we tried to reauthorize the program in 2008 in the HELP Committee -- Health, Education, Labor and Pensions -- but issues around "Charitable Choice" which would have allowed faith based organizations to receive federal funds to provide mental health and substance abuse services, paralyzed the reauthorization negotiations. It has been two years since the negotiations stalled, and unfortunately, no further discussions have occurred in the past two years. We need to continue to push for the reauthorization of SAMHSA and other vitally needed mental health programs.
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