Congress has taken a huge step toward bringing our nation’s laws in line with modern medicine by passing the 21st Century Cures Act, which includes provisions to accelerate delivery of research and innovative treatments in two critical areas for my constituents and millions more Americans: mental health and rare diseases.
Our country has seen a rise in mental health awareness over the last several years, in many ways due to our veterans returning from war, battered and in need of care for wounds that we cannot see. As this quiet epidemic has moved out of the shadows, our responsibility to put in place reforms to support our military service members, as well as others who suffer in silence with mental illness, has grown.
The Central Valley has the highest prevalence of serious mental illness amongst adults in California, making the need for reforms at the federal level of even greater importance to our community. That’s why in 2014 I brought Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA) to Tracy for a roundtable discussion with local healthcare providers, law enforcement officials and families about mental health and his bill, the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act, which passed as part of the Cures Act last week.
As a nation, we’ve reached a critical point where we must do more to implement meaningful mental health reforms. In 2015 alone, the U.S. suffered 43,000 suicides. We have a shortage of 100,000 psychiatric beds and more than 20,000 child and adolescent psychiatrists. Even care that is delivered is often delayed for more than 70 weeks after the initial appearance of the illness. An investigation by a House Oversight Committee found that not a single psychiatrist is employed by the leading federal mental health agency. Further, agencies that receive federal mental health funding don’t even document how these dollars are spent – the government is blindly throwing money at programs that, at minimum, could possibly be beneficial, yet there is no way to know for sure.
The Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act represents a significant step toward ensuring that those who need help the most, get it – especially veterans and children. Twenty-two veterans commit suicide every day, and Rep. Murphy’s bill strengthens programs currently in place with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs so that calls for help to suicide prevention hotlines are always answered. The bill also ensures greater oversight by setting objective outcome measures, creates grant programs, institutes a national study, forms a national awareness campaign and eases access and affordability of mental health services for children. Overwhelming evidence suggests that the majority of serious psychiatric illnesses occurs before the age of 24. Prevention measures, expanded treatment options and public education about mental health are all crucial to reform efforts. Now more than ever, we must give future generations the care, services and resources that too many in the past have not received.
The 21st Century Cures Act also provides funding for rare diseases, helping to deliver treatments to millions of Americans who desperately need them by providing $6.3 billion in new funding to the National Institutes of Health and Food and Drug Administration for research and related activities. For these individuals and their families, time is of the essence, and this funding is critical to allocating the necessary resources. This has become an increasingly personal issue as I have come to know CA-10 constituent, Scotty Whitecotton, and his mother Kim. Over the years, Scotty has helped me to understand the impacts of rare diseases, such as Hunter Syndrome, or mucopolysaccharidosis II (MPS II), a genetic disorder that he fights every day. Scotty and Kim have been tireless advocates for the Cures Act, making annual trips to Washington to grow awareness among my colleagues. Their involvement has made an undeniable impact.
As we look forward to the president’s signature on this long-awaited bill, I celebrate alongside Scotty, Kim and the millions of Americans affected by rare diseases and mental illness. With this funding, we have an opportunity to literally change lives. But we also recognize that we have miles to go for the cure, and I will continue to fight alongside them until that cure is delivered.
— Jeff Denham is a local farmer, small businessman, veteran and the U.S. representative for California’s 10th district.