BOSTON — The state Senate on Wednesday will take up a major proposal aimed at improving access to mental health services, and lawmakers are calling for more changes to reduce wait times, improve coverage and reduce suicide deaths.
The legislation calls for reducing barriers to care by easing the amount of time it takes for behavioral health professionals to be approved by insurance networks and requiring insurers to cover same-day psychiatric care. It would also require insurers to cover annual mental health exams, similar to wellness checks.
Lawmakers representing the North of Boston region have proposed a number of amendments aimed at strengthening the bill ahead of Wednesday’s debate.
Sen. Barry Finegold, D-Andover, wants to include provisions aimed at reducing increased skyrocketing rates of suicide, particularly among young people.
“We’re dealing with an epidemic of major proportions,” he said. “We really need to go on the offensive and get people the help they need before its too late.”
One of Finegold’s amendments would require training for teachers and students to detect warning signs of isolation, interpersonal violence and suicide.
While Massachusetts has one of the lowest suicide rates in the nation, suicide deaths have been increasing for more than a decade, according to state public health data, which suggests the problem has worsened during the pandemic.
Another Finegold amendment would set a maximum sentence of five years in prison for anyone who “intentionally coerces or encourages that person to commit or attempt to commit suicide” by using physical acts or mental coercion that manipulate “a person’s fears, affections or sympathies.”
The proposal is named after 18-year-old Conrad Roy, of Mattapoisett, who killed himself in 2014 after a battle with mental illnesses.
Finegold, who filed a similar bill in the current session, said Massachusetts is among a handful of states without a law making suicide by coercion a crime.
“We need young people to speak up when they hear about someone potentially doing harm to themselves or others, he said.
Michelle Carter, of Plainville, was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in Roy’s death in 2017 following a trial that drew national headlines. A Superior Court judge determined she caused Roy’s death when she told him to “get back in” his truck as it was filling with carbon monoxide in a parking lot in Fairhaven.
Sen. Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, has filed several amendments to the bill seeking to improve health insurance coverage and patient access to mental health services.
He’s also filed a proposal that would require the state to conduct a study of suicides among Massachusetts veterans and members of the military.
Recent studies support claims that mental health issues are growing — even as the pandemic subsides — especially among young people.
Meanwhile, a shortage of staffing and beds in mental health units means adults and children end up “boarding” in emergency rooms while waiting for services.
Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, has filed an amendment that would create a state commission to come up with recommendations for the state’s Medicaid program to reduce wait times for mental health treatment, especially for adolescents.
“There are so many families trying to access mental and behavioral health care and they aren’t getting the access they need,” Lovely said. “It’s like going to the doctor with a broken arm and being told to come back in a few weeks to fix it.”
The panel would consider possible incentives for private counseling practices to accept MassHealth patients, including grant programs and direct funding.
Last week, the Senate approved a plan to divert $400 million in federal relief funds and surplus revenues to improve mental health services in the state.
The Senate approve a similar bill last year but the legislation was scuttled after much of the Legislature’s work was sidelined at the outset of the pandemic.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.