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Mass. senators unveil wide-ranging mental health measure

Senate President Karen Spilka was among the lawmakers speaking in support of the bill.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/File

A trio of state senators with personal stories of coping with mental illness — as a child, a parent, and an adolescent — have banded together to back a bill that turns on the notion that mental health is as crucial to a person’s well-being as physical health and should be treated, protected, and nurtured as such.

Senate President Karen Spilka unveiled the legislation, Mental Health ABC Act 2.0: Addressing Barriers to Care, in a virtual news briefing on Tuesday. She said it would be a Senate priority. The Senate is expected to debate the bill next week.

The legislation would require free annual mental health exams just like annual physical exams, and would carve out nearly $122 million to recruit 2,000 mental health professionals. It would also require insurance companies to pay mental health clinicians rates on par with primary care providers.


“This is personal to me as the daughter of a WWII veteran who suffered from undiagnosed and untreated PTSD and other mental health concerns,” Spilka said. “I know firsthand how mental health conditions can affect the entire family, not only the person that might be experiencing mental health issues, but the entire family.”

Fewer secrets and more open attitudes about mental health have created a dearth in services; the pandemic has intensified the lack and the need, she said.

“We are no longer talking about the need for quality mental and behavioral health care in whispers, shamed by stigma,” Spilka said. “People across the Commonwealth are telling their stories. They are speaking up, and the need for, actually the call for, mental health care is now a roar.”

Senator Julian Cyr, chair of the Joint Committee on Mental Health, Substance Use and Recovery, said finding appropriate mental health services when he was a teen was tough but made major differences when he did find it.


“I’m someone who struggled with anxiety and depression, especially in adolescence,” Cyr said. “But therapy, the right mental health services, truly helped me manage my anxiety and do things I never dreamed ... [including] this position now. And yet, for the longest time, I really struggled and couldn’t figure out how to get my mental health care.

“The cornerstone of this legislation is that mental health is just important as a person’s physical health,” Cyr said. “And to that end, this bill would codify that concept, that belief, by mandating coverage for an annual mental health wellness exam, comparable to a physical exam.”

Senator Cindy Friedman, chair of the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing, said living with mental illness was personal to her, as well.

“As a parent of a child that has a serious and persistent mental illness, I know firsthand how completely disconnected, difficult, and expensive it is to access the system as it is today,” Friedman said.

This legislation, Friedman said, would seek to eliminate some of those hurdles through parity.

“Mental health parity as a concept is simple,” she said. “Insurance coverage for mental health care should be equal to insurance coverage for any other medical conditions.”

Too often, people experiencing mental illness end up in emergency departments ill equipped to handle their crisis, Friedman said.

The legislation also would create a centralized online portal where emergency departments could search for open beds, reducing the hours hospital staff now spend making call after call in search of open spaces. The bill also would require that emergency departments have a behavioral health clinician available at all hours.


“Just imagine being the parent of a child who arrives in an [emergency department] in the midst of a mental health crisis that requires immediate treatment, but being told that such treatment is not available, or being told that your insurance doesn’t cover the service, or that no providers are currently accepting new patients, or that no inpatient psychiatric bed exists within 50 miles,” Friedman said.

“This happens all the time. And it is simply unacceptable and would never ever be the case for someone in need of immediate treatment for physical health needs.”

Health Care For All applauded the Senate for releasing a bill that would improve access to mental health care.

“While Massachusetts has made great strides in expanding health coverage, many consumers still face barriers to accessing the care they need,” said executive director Amy Rosenthal. “This is especially true for behavioral health care. The Senate bill seeks to address these barriers through several levers.”

Lora Pellegrini, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Association of Health Plans, also lauded the bill.

“We are supportive of many of the provisions included in ABC 2.0,” Pellegrini said. “We applaud the Senate and, in particular, Senate President Karen Spilka for her collaboration and leadership in seeking to improve access to behavioral health care services and end the stigma associated with behavioral health treatment.”


Tonya Alanez can be reached at Follow her @talanez.