Colin A. Young
BOSTON – Tuesday’s signing ceremony for the state’s new mental health law was more than celebrating another legislative achievement for Senate President Karen Spilka. It was also affirmation that a childhood clouded by a parent’s untreated mental health issues was worth it.
In what she says was a “moment of vulnerability and honesty” years ago, the Ashland Democrat decided to publicly share the story of her family’s struggle with mental illness. Her father suffered from significant mental health problems after his service in World War II, she said, but he would not seek help because of the stigma attached to it.
When they couldn’t convince her father to seek help, Spilka said she and her mother sought counseling, and as a teenager she would have to sneak Haldol into her father’s food to treat his condition.
“Many nights, I had my little brother sleep in the room with me because I was afraid he wouldn’t be alive in the morning if I let him sleep downstairs,” Spilka said in 2020.
Speaking to a packed Senate reading room Tuesday after Gov. Charlie Baker recreated his signing of a new Massachusetts law aimed at putting mental health on the same footing as physical health and making treatment more accessible, the president of Senati said the work to get to that point was “a bittersweet gift left to me by my father’s legacy.”
“I truly believe I wouldn’t be a senator, let alone president of the Senate, if it weren’t for all the things I went through growing up,” she said. “And I have to say that this has been a personal passion for me. And today, seeing all of you, seeing my colleagues in the state government (to) see this bill signed, it makes it meaningful, it makes it worthwhile, I passed this increase. It’s something I’ve fought for in the Legislature for nearly 20 years. We know sometimes things go slow around here. But it is beyond time. So thank you.”
The new law mandates insurance coverage for an annual mental health exam similar to an annual physical; seeks to curb emergency department boarding crisis; eliminates a prior authorization requirement for acute mental health treatment; and requires commercial insurers to cover emergency service programs.
“This legislation contains key provisions that we can all be proud of and that will bring significant benefits to residents across the state,” said Rep. Adrian Madaro, D-Boston, who negotiated the final bill with state Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro. . “And as previously mentioned, there is no doubt that there is no family and no corner of the Commonwealth that is not affected by these issues. With this step, she will continue to ensure that Massachusetts remains a leader in all forms of health care .”
House Speaker Ronald Mariano called the bill “one of the most comprehensive mental health bills you’ll see in the country” and said it was a “tremendous honor” to see it become law.
Baker, who highlighted Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders’ career spent working on issues including mental health reform, said the new law is essentially about taking the necessary steps “to bring us to a point where we have what I would describe as true parity for mental health services here in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”
“You know, that word means a lot of things to a lot of people,” the governor continued. And I think one of the things that we’ve all learned over many years is that equality is very much in the eye of the beholder, and the most important thing that this bill does is it brings us much closer to a point in time where equality really is what equity means, which is access to behavioral health and mental health services in the same way, with the same access and the same commitment that we make to all other forms of health care here in the Commonwealth.”
Baker said he is happy to begin implementing “this huge and positive step in the right direction for everyone in Massachusetts who suffers from this terrible and debilitating disease.”
“And I couldn’t be more pleased as one of my final acts in working with my colleagues in the Legislature — and I’m counting on a few more — that this piece of legislation would come through,” he said.