Colin A. Young
BOSTON — Tuesday’s signing ceremony for the state’s new mental health law was more than the celebration of another legislative achievement for Senate President Karen Spilka. It was also affirmation that a childhood clouded by a parent’s untreated mental health issues had been 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 issues after his service in World War II, she said, but he wouldn’t seek help because of the stigma associated with 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 younger brother sleep in the room with me because I feared 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 on Tuesday after Gov. Charlie Baker recreated his signing of a new Massachusetts law that aims to raise mental health onto the same footing as physical health and to make treatment more accessible, the Senate president said the work to get to that point was “a bittersweet gift my father’s legacy left me.”
“I truly believe that I would not be a senator, let alone Senate president, if it wasn’t for all the stuff that I went through growing up as a kid,” 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 state government as well (to) see this bill signed, it makes it meaningful, it makes it worthwhile to have gone through that growing up. It is something that I fought for for almost 20 years in the Legislature. We know sometimes things go slowly here. But it’s beyond time. So thank you.”
The new law mandates insurance coverage for an annual mental health wellness exam similar to an annual physical; seeks to rein in the emergency department boarding crisis; eliminates a prior authorization requirement for mental health acute treatment; and requires commercial insurers to cover emergency service programs.
“This legislation contains key provisions we can all be proud of that will yield significant benefits to residents across the state,” said state Rep. Adrian Madaro, D-Boston, who negotiated the final bill with state Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro. “And as has been mentioned before, there’s no doubt there is no family and no corner of the commonwealth that is not impacted by these issues. With this step, it will continue to ensure that Massachusetts remains a leader in all forms of health care.”
House Speaker Ronald Mariano called the law “one of the most comprehensive mental health bills you’re gonna see in the country” and said it was an “outstanding honor” to see it become law.
Baker, who highlighted Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders’s career spent working on issues including mental health reform, said the new law is fundamentally about taking the necessary steps “to get 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 we’ve all learned over the course of many years is that parity is very much in the eye of the beholder, and the most important thing this bill does is move us a lot closer to a point in time when parity really is what parity thinks it is, 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 glad he gets to start the implementation of “this enormous and positive step in the right direction for all those in Massachusetts who suffer from this terrible and debilitating illness.”
“And I couldn’t be more pleased as one of my final acts in working with my colleagues in the Legislature — and I’m kind of counting on a couple more — that this piece of legislation would make it through,” he said.