Mental health reform legislation advances in the State Senate

March 26th, 2021

A bill sponsored by NUHW to require Kaiser Permanente and all health plans in California to provide timely follow-up mental health and substance use disorder appointments sailed through its first legislative committee vote on Tuesday.

The State Senate’s Health Committee passed SB 221 by a vote of 9-0. The committee’s two Republicans abstained, while every Democrat voted in favor of the bill.

The bill, authored by State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, still must wind its way through the State Senate before heading to the State Assembly. But, Tuesday’s vote demonstrates that our work exposing the damage caused to patients by long waits for follow-up appointments has built strong support in Sacramento for this important reform measure.

SB 221 would close a loophole that requires HMOs and insurers to provide initial mental health and substance use disorder appointments within 10 days, but allows them to make patients wait weeks or months for follow-up appointments. The bill would require HMOs and insurers to provide follow-up appointments within 10 business days, unless a clinician determines that a longer gap is appropriate.

NUHW is sponsoring SB 221, and a number of Kaiser therapists recently spent time talking to Senate Health Committee members about why it’s so important to pass it into law. We also worked with Sen. Wiener to organize speakers for Tuesday’s hearing, including Susan Whitney, a Kaiser therapist in Bakersfield and Chelsie Martinez, a former Kaiser patient, who testified how her serious mental health conditions only improved once she began paying out of pocket for weekly therapy outside Kaiser.

After remarks from Whitney and Martinez, Senators Connie Leyva, of Chino, and Richard Pan, of Sacramento, told industry representatives that they must improve working conditions in order to address the shortage of clinicians they claim is the reason why patients can’t receive timely follow-up appointments.

Senator Pan, who is a pediatrician and the committee’s chairperson, told the healthcare industry’s representatives that “If you’re going to encourage people to go into a field, there better be a good career at the end of it. He also asked them: “What have you done to actually make it more appealing for people to go into mental health fields?”

Several mental health advocacy organizations declared their support for the bill, including the newly-formed California State Association of Psychiatrists. It’s representative, Paul Yoder, told the Senators that, “You’re literally helping millions of Californians with legislation like this.”

The bill next heads to a vote of the senate’s Appropriations Committee before it can go to a full vote and then on to the State Assembly.