Mental health advocates waiting on appointment of assistant secretary
But they are also likely to begin soon nudging President Donald Trump's administration and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price to make the appointment, with letters supporting candidates believed to be on the short list.
Politico’s PULSE column reported the administration is nearing its final decision among Miami-Dade County Judge Steve Leifman, health department insider Dr. Ellie McCance-Katz, and forensic psychiatrist Dr. Michael Welner. Angela Kimball of the National Alliance on Mental Illness told Patient Daily that Bob Heinssen of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) is also being considered.
“We expect to see letters of support very soon, with different groups urging the president and the health secretary to name the assistant secretary,” Kimball told Patient Daily. She said those groups are likely to advocate for particular individuals, but added there a number of excellent experts in the mix. Kimball, the alliance’s national director of public policy, would not say which candidate her organization supports.
Leifman, who has a reputation in Florida and nationally for his work trying to steer the mentally ill away from the maze of the criminal justice system, is a popular choice among advocates.
Heinssen, NIMH’s director of intervention research, is also a favorite within the mental health community.
The assistant secretary will lead the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). It is a new position, one long called for by mental health professionals, created under the 21st Century Cures Act, the broad-based bipartisan legislation signed last year that promises more funding for mental health care and often-related substance abuse issues.
An administrator has led SAMHSA in the past, but the assistant secretary will report directly to Price, Kimball said.
“Details can matter and this gives the person in charge more gravitas, an added sense of importance within the administration,” she said. “That is important. It says that mental health is important.”
Mental health has a profound effect on the overall health and well-being of the nation, Kimball argued, adding that Congress began recognizing that in recent years, culminating in the Cures Act.
“It should have happened before. We see this is a long overdue elevation of the role of SAMHSA,” she said. But Kimball admitted being “incredibly proud” of Congress for passing the bill. The assistant secretary, she believes, will have the authority to look at mental illness not just as a health issue, but also as it impacts other areas, including criminal justice, education and child welfare.
“(The assistant secretary) can bring a larger systems approach, and actually impact different areas rather than simply treating mental health as a minority party within health care,” Kimball said. “It affects so many parts of government.”
On whether the new administration, and Price, will honor the spirit and intent of the act, Kimball said, “We have heard that Secretary Price believes that mental health should be a priority. And the president talked about the fact that our nation is imprisoning too many people with mental health problems. These kinds of comments give us a hope that this administration will continue the bipartisan support that Congress has shown in recent years.”
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