Opinion

Clinton steps up on mental health

Hillary Clinton made one of the most consequential announcements of her campaign last week — and hardly anyone is talking about it. The Democratic presidential nominee released a wide-ranging mental-health strategy — and, unlike much of what she has proposed this election season, it has a real chance of becoming law.

Congress has over the past several years put serious effort into reforming the federal government's mental-health efforts, producing — but not yet passing — a slew of bills with bipartisan backing. This is one of the few issues on which lawmakers may be able to agree, even in a severely divided Washington, over the coming months. The House, in fact, has already passed a bill. Ideally, the Senate would pass its own reform before next year. But, if lawmakers fail to send a bill to President Barack Obama — always a high likelihood given Congress's slow pace — the next president should enter the policy debate, pressing for lawmakers to finally pass something. In the process, the next president would undoubtedly leave an imprint.

Good thing, then, that Clinton and the lawmakers most seriously working on these issues agree on many worthwhile things. First and foremost is treating mental health with the same priority as physical health. That means removing old payment systems that shortchanged mental-health care and using the federal government's role as a major payer in the health industry to encourage integrating mental-health care into medical practices.

The big-ticket item in Clinton's plan is $5 billion for community health centers providing substance abuse and mental-health treatment as well as traditional medical care, which jibes with elements of reform initiatives emerging from Congress. To address a shortage of mental-health professionals, meanwhile, she would smartly encourage telemedicine, among other things. Clinton also proposed pumping up the budget for basic scientific research, some of which would be diverted into studying the brain. Aside and apart from the debate over mental health, Democrats and Republicans have often been able to agree on funding basic research such as this.

This is not to say that all sides are in perfect agreement. A major hurdle to passing any mental-health reform law is the inevitable disagreement over where the funding for it would come from. Clinton has also ducked some of the most controversial issues. Some on Capitol Hill want to encourage so-called assisted outpatient treatment, which requires seriously mentally ill people to get care. Clinton should have embraced the idea. Without programs such as these, all of that money funding community health centers will do less good, because the centers will serve fewer people — and not necessarily those most in need. Clinton also said nothing about loosening medical records laws, giving family members more information so they can assist relatives with mental illness. This is another good idea, if done with care. So is requiring that federal mental-health grants come with requirements that funded programs demonstrate success, another reform on which Clinton punted.

Still, Clinton's focus on the issue is warranted and welcome. If she becomes president, it might do some real-world good.

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