Governor Gavin Newson today signed into law a package of mental health-related bills that puts California at the forefront of efforts by states to address a mental health crisis that has been worsening for years and is being amplified by the coronavirus pandemic.
The new laws will make it easier for Californians to get mental health treatment covered by their private health insurer, will expand the mental health workforce by making greater use of peer supports specialists, and will facilitate the ability of counties to get severely mentally ill people into outpatient treatment.
“Thank you Governor Newsom and lead legislators for being mental health champions,” said Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, founder of the Steinberg Institute, a nonprofit that works to transform and strengthen mental health policy in California. “Today represents the most significant advance for our cause in many years. Parity and peers. Literally millions of people will suffer less as a result.”
SB 855 expands the ability of Californians who buy insurance or get it from their employers to obtain treatment for a wide array of mental health and substance use disorders. It requires commercial health insurers to pay for medically necessary treatment of any behavioral health or substance use disorder listed in the DSM-5, the American Psychiatric Association manual that defines mental health conditions. The bill was authored by Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), and sponsored by the Steinberg Institute and The Kennedy Forum, a national mental health advocacy organization founded by former Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy.
“Today, California sets a new precedent in addressing our nation’s suicide and overdose crises by taking steps to hold insurers accountable for equal coverage of mental health and addiction treatment,” said Kennedy, who has been fighting for mental health parity for years and was the lead author of the 2008 Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act. “Access to care matters, now more than ever. Governor Newsom has made that clear through his actions and we applaud his leadership.”
SB 803 requires the state to establish statewide requirements for certifying peer support specialists –people with personal experience with the mental health system who are trained to support and assist others who are going through mental health challenges. Counties that choose to do so would be responsible for implementing and managing the program and could access federal funds to partially cover the cost of employing peers, helping expand the workforce of people who can respond to the state’s mental health crisis. It was authored by Senator Jim Beall (D-San Jose) and co-sponsored by the Steinberg Institute, the California Association of Mental Health Peer Run Organizations, the California County Behavioral Health Directors Association and Los Angeles County.
“The governor’s support for SB 803 was an act of courage,” said Maggie Merritt, executive director of the Steinberg Institute. “It says to the community of peer supporters – people who have real lived experience with mental health struggles and who have received training to help others – that they are valued and that they can make a real contribution to helping their brothers and sisters who are going through the same hardships.”
Other mental health-related bills that were signed into law by the governor include:
AB 1976 (Eggman, D-Stockton), amends the bill known as Laura’s Law, making it permanent and requiring all counties to implement the program, unless they formally opt out of doing so. The original 2002 law authorized counties to start programs to provide intensive assisted outpatient treatment (AOT) to people suffering from severe mental illness and enabled judges to order treatment for those who declined to accept offered services.
AB 1766 (Bloom) would require the state Department of Social Services to annually report the number of board-and-care homes that serve low-income Californians living with a severe mental illness, track their closures, and notify county behavioral health departments within three days of receiving notice that an operator plans to close a home. Board-and-care homes are a crucial piece of the housing spectrum for people living with severe mental illness. AB 1766 would provide policymakers statewide data to address the loss of these homes and help counties identify appropriate living options for people with severe mental illness.
AB 2265 (Quirk-Silva) allows counties to use fund from the Mental Health Services Act to treat and assess people believed to be suffering from co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders.