Rep. Ron Barber, joined by four Democratic colleagues, unveiled legislation aimed at overhauling mental health care Tuesday.
A victim of the Jan. 8, 2011, shooting that left six dead and 13 wounded, Barber wants to expand a pilot program he helped to launch in Tucson offering training to help first responders, law enforcement and teachers to identify the signs of mental illness.
Other provisions in the Democrat-backed legislation call for putting trained mental health professionals in schools, increased services to active military personnel and veterans as well as increased funding into mental health research.
Barber brought up his Jan. 8 attacker, Jared Loughner during the press conference, noting the system failed to see the warning signs of his mental illness.
“While our assailant had been banned from classes at a local community college for his threatening and inexplicable behavior,” Barber said, “he never was diagnosed or treated for his mental illness — until he was in prison.”
Barber said with the proper training as well as minor changes to medical privacy rules, such tragedies could be avoided in the future.
“We cannot ignore the fact that in a number of recent mass shootings, it has been determined that the perpetrator had a mental illness that was either not diagnosed or not treated,” Barber said.
Republicans quickly criticized the proposal, noting Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., already has a similar proposal moving through the House.
Susan Mosychuk, the chief of staff for Murphy, called the legislation from Barber “a placebo” for a system that needs real reform.
The Murphy bill would be the biggest overhaul of the mental health system since it was deinstitutionalized in the 1960s. But it is controversial because it includes some involuntary provisions for outpatients.
“The Democrat bill will do nothing to prevent the next Jared Loughner, James Holmes or Adam Lanza because it does nothing to help those with serious mental illness and continues funding the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration constituency of legal advocates and anti-psychiatry activists who use taxpayer dollars to force patients out of treatment,” Mosychuk said.
Barber disagreed, saying his legislation would help to identify those displaying signs of mental illness early, greatly increasing the chances they can get help before they become violent.
D.J. Jaffe, executive director for the Mental Illness Policy Organization in New York, also was critical of Barber’s proposal.
Jaffe, who supports the Republican-backed bill from Murphy, said Barber’s plan simply doesn’t do enough to offer long-term care of those with serious mental issues like schizophrenia.
He said the proposal focuses on solutions to identify those with mental health problems, puts money into treatment for veterans as well as more money for research, but does nothing for those struggling to get long term care for the most serious of issues.
Again, Barber, disagrees. He notes many people with serious mental issues qualify for both Medicare and Medicaid.
The Tucson Democrat argues long-term care is available for those who have been diagnosed with serious mental health disorders.
The proposed legislation, Barber concedes, is still open to negotiation as he looks for more co-sponsors as he tries to get it passed in the GOP-controlled House.
“We had to start somewhere,” he said of his proposal on Tuesday night.