By Stephanie Yamkovenko
The Occupational Therapy Mental Health Act was introduced in the House on March 7 by Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY). The bill would add occupational therapists to a list of approved mental health professionals for the National Health Service Corps (NHSC). Contact your legislators today to encourage them to support H.R. 1037.
Following the tragedy in Newtown, CT, the president and vice president have made mental health issues a top priority, and Congress is expected to develop legislation to address mental health.
“The Senate Health Education Labor and Pension (HELP) committee is set to move comprehensive legislation on mental health, particularly related to early intervention, early identification, and possibly wellness promotion,” says Heather Parsons, AOTA’s director of legislative advocacy. “This bill gives our legislation a ‘vehicle’ to move in—our small bill can be added into the much larger bill and be signed into law as part of the package.”
Work on the Occupational Therapy Mental Health Act has been in progress for several years. In 2011, AOTA Federal Affairs staff found that the only list of “mental health professionals” in federal law existed in a statute related to the NHSC, which is a scholarship and loan repayment program. Occupational therapy practitioners are not on the current list of approved mental health practitioners, which the bill introduced to the House today would change.
The Occupational Therapy Mental Health Act will not result in any increase to the federal budget, but will create an opportunity for occupational therapists to apply for the NHSC. This federal program supports education, training, and employment for health care providers while increasing access to care in rural and medically underserved areas. Following a 5-year commitment to the NHSC to practice in participating facilities, eligible occupational therapists would receive student loan forgiveness.
Because the NHSC requires graduate education, only occupational therapists would be added to the list of approved mental health professionals. AOTA is continuing to work to expand the mental health role to include occupational therapy assistants.
If the bill is passed, AOTA believes that it will have a wide effect on the profession. The inclusion of occupational therapy in federal mental health law would not only raise the profile of occupational therapy’s role in mental health, but it could also help with advocacy efforts to expand the role of occupational therapy in mental health in state laws and scope of practice acts. AOTA Federal Affairs staff estimate that nearly a third of states used the NHSC’s list for their legislation.
“Being added to this list will be extremely helpful in all future efforts on the state level to establish or re-establish occupational therapy’s important role in a high quality and effective mental health care system,” says Ralph Kohl, AOTA’s legislative representative.
Many of the president’s and vice president’s initiatives focus on providing more funding for mental health professionals through the NHSC.
“People are once again focused on the NHSC, and this gives us an opportunity to make our case for inclusion,” says Parsons. “Lawmakers are looking at the issue with fresh eyes and a desire to do something. That’s why it is essential that everyone contact their members of Congress and let them know about this bill.”
Stephanie Yamkovenko is AOTA’s Web editor.