Feb. 21 Federal Update: Congress Begins Work on a Mental Health Bill
The Senate Finance Committee is beginning work on a mental health bill to address current challenges. A few weeks ago, it held several hearings focused on youth mental health challenges, one featuring U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy. Senate Finance Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has selected four core focus areas:
- Strengthening the workforce
- Increasing integration/coordination and access
- Ensuring parity between behavioral and physical health
- Furthering the use of telehealth
The committee has identified a bipartisan pair of co-chairs from among its members to lead the work on each focus area. Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.) will work on the workforce issues. Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) are working on integration and access to care. Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.) are working on parity issues. Finally, Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and John Thune (R-S.D.) are working on telehealth.
Their goal is to produce bipartisan legislation this summer that brings together these various pieces of work. Parity seems to be a big issue heading into this discussion, as health insurance companies often violate laws and refuse to pay for mental health or substance abuse services. Insurance companies are already bracing to fight policy ideas around enforcements and fines. Social Current will be involved in advocacy efforts around this legislation and will continue to track this closely.
In other news, Congress voted to pass another short-term continuing resolution that would keep the government funded through March 11. Senate and House Appropriations Committee leads have agreed on a bipartisan funding framework for the 2022 fiscal year budget and are now working out the details. They are hoping to pass an omnibus budget bill before March 11 but may need another short-term extension to buy time if negotiations are not complete by then.
Equity Commission at USDA Formed
On Feb. 10, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the creation of the new Equity Commission, an initiative authorized and funded by the American Rescue Plan, which passed last March. The commission also includes a subcommittee on agriculture, and an additional subcommittee on rural community and economic development is forthcoming. The 15-member commission and its subcommittee will provide ideas and recommendations to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack on ways the department can give all farmers and ranchers an equal chance at success and prosperity and close the racial wealth gap and other inequities in agriculture. Members will focus on tackling racial equity issues inside the department as well as in its programs. The commission launched after the one-year anniversary of the Biden administration’s executive order requiring federal agencies to reevaluate all internal and external programs and policies with a specific focus on advancing racial equity.
USDA Delivers $1.4 Billion for Rural Economic Development
The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a $1.4 billion investment in rural business and cooperative services that is estimated to create or save over 50,000 jobs. These funds will be distributed across 49 states, the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico, and will help businesses and regional cooperatives hire and retain staff, create new opportunities for historically disadvantaged communities, and expand to new customer bases. For example, one grant for the Pella Cooperative Association will shore up its loan fund, which will help build a new women’s housing and health care building. Another grant will support rural microentrepreneurs and microenterprises in 12 Nebraska counties, including Native American business owners. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack says that these investments will make rural economies whole and equitable.
New Brief on Transition-Age Youth
First Focus on Children recently released the policy brief, How Tax Credits Could Provide Transition-Age Youth Greater Financial Stability, which outlines challenges that youth aging out of foster care have faced in recent years and opportunities to alleviate hardship moving forward. There are approximately 700,000 youth (ages 16-24) with experience in foster care. Among findings in the brief:
- 27% were homeless in the past two years
- 22% had children in the last two years
- 31% were receiving public assistance
At the start of the pandemic in Spring 2020, the unemployment rate for this population rose from 8.4% to 24.4%. However, changes to the tax code in 2021 disproportionately helped youth with foster care experience. For example, the Earned Income Tax Credit was expanded to include eligibility for former foster youth and homeless youth ages 18-25, benefiting an estimated 380,000-500,000 youth. Youth with children became eligible for monthly payments and expanded care support through the Child Tax Credit and the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit. The brief calls on Congress to make these changes and others permanent, so that youth with foster care experience continue to receive support.