Despite partisan divide, policy watchers say the new Congress could make progress on public health

By: - December 5, 2022 5:00 am

“Even among an extremely partisan House, there’s some pressure from their members that say 'hey we can’t just do nothing forever.'" (Photo: Hugh Jackson)

A divided Congress next year notwithstanding, there are some public health measures that a Republican-controlled House and a Democratic-controlled Senate could agree upon — or at least that’s what panelists said last week during a discussion hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC), a Washington-based think tank.  

Potential progress could be made on telehealth, mental and behavioral health, and the fentanyl crisis, the panelists suggested.

“Whether it’s mental health, substance use, or empowering patients I really think those are the key agenda items that are likely to move forward in the next Congress,” said Amy Cunniffe with Split Oak Strategies, a Capital Hill firm that lobbies for multiple medical and pharmaceutical interests as well as the BPC.

A handful of modest mental and behavioral health proposals have garnered bipartisan support in the current Congress, presenting the promise that they could be revived and enacted in a new one. 

Maryland Democrat Rep. David Trone and Washington Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers co-sponsored the Restoring Hope for Mental Health and Well-Being Act of 2022, which would expand access to opioid disorder treatment, form grants for building behavioral health care staff, and enhance suicide prevention efforts. 

The bill passed the House with overwhelming support by both parties, including the three Democrats and one Republican in the House from Nevada, earlier this year. Though the Senate didn’t act on the legislation during the current Congress, the bill will likely be reintroduced when the new Congress convenes.

Expanding access to substance use treatment for opioids, increasing grants for suicide prevention and supporting youth mental health concerns, and continuing telehealth access are all policy issues that impact Americans regardless of where they live or who they voted for, participants at the BPC panel said.

Other legislation they pointed to includes the Mental Health Services for Students Act which aims to expand access to mental and behavioral health care in schools. That legislation also passed the House with bipartisan co-sponsors, including  Nevada Democrat Rep. Dina Titus, and stands a good chance of being reintroduced next year. 

The House with nearly unanimous support also passed fentanyl  the Synthetic Opioid Danger Awareness Act to  education about synthetic opioids and treatment options. The fentanyl crisis continues to overwhelm rural and urban America, with 75% of all drug overdose deaths in 2020 involving opioids, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — and in Southern Nevada, the bulk of those deaths are now people between 18-25. 

Telehealth services, which have traditionally been especially useful in serving rural communities, expanded substantially during the pandemic, benefiting urban communities and the nearly one-third of Americans who live in a mental health care professional desert, according to a report by the Bipartisan Policy Center.

But much of that expansion was tied to the  COVID-19 Public Health Emergency, set to expire on  Jan. 11, 2023,  and did not require those telehealth providers to comply with Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) rules for technology use. Nor did providers have to establish a relationship with a patient before providing telehealth services. 

The Advancing Telehealth Beyond COVID–19 Act of 2021, which permits the continuation of Medicare telehealth services, and the Suicide Prevention Act, which aims to create grants for suicide prevention, all passed the House with bipartisan support but failed to move in the Senate.

Jim Capretta, a senior fellow who focuses on healthcare at the right-leaning public policy think tank American Enterprise Institute, argued that if framed correctly, additional policies addressing health care policies could win bipartisan support in the upcoming Congress.

“Even among an extremely partisan House, there’s some pressure from their members that say ‘hey we can’t just do nothing forever. I’d like to go home and say I did a few things and let’s do some things that we can take credit for too,’” Capretta said, adding House Democrats will be similarly motivated.

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Camalot Todd
Camalot Todd

An award-winning, investigative and enterprise reporter, Camalot Todd has over seven years experience in print, digital, radio and TV journalism. She covered mental and behavioral health in New York for Spectrum News 1 Buffalo through the national service program, Report For America, where she won the Mental Health Advocates of WNY Advocacy Award in 2020 for her coverage on mental health stigma. She also served as an inaugural member of the Report For America Corps Advisory Board Member, 2021-2022. Previously, she reported on community issues in Las Vegas, including a long-term project on underage sex trafficking, for the Las Vegas Sun and its sister publication, Las Vegas Weekly. For the Sun, she wrote a pathbreaking investigative piece called, “Children on the Cusp: The transition from foster care to adulthood is leaving some behind.” The piece won the Nevada Press Association best investigative story of the year and named Camalot the Best Community Reporter of 2017. She also worked as a reporter for KUNV radio and is a graduate of University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Camalot was selected for National Press Foundation Opioid and Addiction Fellow 2021 and led the Syracuse Press Club's Journalism Lab as an educator from 2021-2022.

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