Gov. Charlie Baker files new health care legislation to expand treatment access, prioritize mental health services

Gov. Charlie Baker unveiled major mental health and primary care legislation on Tuesday, as the Republican leader sought to cement some of the innovations accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic — including widely utilized telehealth — into a sustainable, integrated model for Massachusetts.

Baker, during a press conference at the Codman Square Health Center in Dorchester, said his newly filed bill would spur greater investments in comprehensive health care services and curb factors that contribute to skyrocketing health care costs. It’s also crafted to broaden access to “high-quality coordinated care,” Baker said, particularly for residents with multiple health conditions or comorbidities.

“The pandemic has only underscored the need to treat behavioral health care services the same way we treat other health care services, both in terms of people’s ability to access those services — but more importantly, to put them on a level playing field with respect to how and what we pay for them,” Baker said Tuesday afternoon. “As we emerge from this pandemic, we all know that too many people — young and old — are struggling with feelings of isolation, depression and despair. And too often, it’s difficult and complicated to access services that can help them.”

Under the governor’s bill, providers and insurers are required to increase spending on primary care and behavioral health care by 30% over the next three years. Baker said those figures would be based on benchmarks established by the Health Policy Commission, which will hold its annual health care cost growth hearing Wednesday afternoon.

Baker estimated the price tag for new investments could be worth between $1-$1.5 billion.

In a hallmark of Baker’s legislation — and in a maneuver already endorsed by the Massachusetts Senate — insurers must comply with mental health parity standards, ensuring equal reimbursement rates for both licensed mental health professionals and primary health care providers.

“We look forward to working with our friends and colleagues in the Legislature to to make these meaningful reforms state law and anticipate that we can have a very robust and productive discussion on this between now and the end of the session … ” Baker said, later adding he would love to sign the bill in the coming months. “No one disputes the fact that that at this point, we have very significant issues with respect to behavioral health access. I mean honestly, I don’t think I’ve found anybody in Massachusetts who thinks we have enough people playing in in the behavioral health space to take care of the people who are trying to access services.”

Many components of Baker’s bill — including the rise of tele-health service as people avoided seeking in-person treatment for behavioral health, addiction, geriatric and primary care needs during the height of the pandemic — have a “demonstrated degree of success,” the governor said.

Heightened funding will translate into more mental health service across the state, Baker said. But he signaled that tele-health is here to stay and expand, even as the threat of COVID subsides.

“I do know that in Western Mass., people found the tele-health services — which we’ve been arguing for for several years and put into that (COVID) emergency order — to be an enormously beneficial service for them,” Baker said, noting the technology’s advantage to serve rural communities. “And I do think that over time, people are going to discover they can use tele-health for a wide ranges of services.

Baker stressed the importance of mental health during his State of the Commonwealth address in January, as he noted discussions were already underway between his administration and the Legislature. In his proposed fiscal 2023 budget, Baker included about $115 million for new initiatives to expand services at community behavioral health centers and creating a Behavioral Health Help Line available 24/7 to all Massachusetts residents.

“The delay in preventative and behavioral health services resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with the significant workforce challenges within our healthcare systems, require deliberate action to meet the needs of our residents,” Massachusetts Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said in a statement Tuesday. “For far too long, primary and behavioral health care have not been at the forefront of our health care system. This legislation is patient-focused, with proposed policies that prioritize the physical and mental health care of all of our residents for years to come.”

The Senate last fall passed a sweeping mental reform bill aimed at ensuring behavioral health insurance parity, curbing the emergency room boarding crisis and implementing annual mental wellness exams, among other objectives.

More recently, the Senate passed legislation to lower the price of prescription drugs, including insulin. Senate President Karen Spilka lauded both achievements during a White House virtual briefing Monday, in which she vowed to ”fight like hell” to make President Joe Biden’s unity agenda a reality for all Americans.

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By Percy