New state Senate committee prioritizes mental health issues
By Grace Barbic
Capitol News Illinois
SPRINGFIELD – Leadership in the Illinois Senate has formed a new committee to focus on mental health issues in the current General Assembly as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to significantly alter everyday life.
“Although it’s always been important, because mental health and physical health are one in the same in my opinion, now because of COVID it’s become even more essential that we really address these problems head on,” said Sen. Laura Fine, D-Glenview.
Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, named Fine as chair of the newly created Senate Committee for Behavioral and Mental Health.
When Fine joined the Senate last year, she approached Harmon about establishing a committee focused specifically on mental health and behavioral issues.
Her advocacy on the issue was nothing new.
Prior to joining the Senate, Fine served in the state House of Representatives for the 17th District from 2013 to 2019, when she served as vice chair on the House Committee for Addiction and Mental Health, chaired by Rep. Deb Conroy, D-Elmhurst.
Fine said she understands firsthand how detrimental and challenging it can be to ensure mental health needs are met.
Her own life experiences have inspired her to bring the issue of mental health to the forefront in the state.
Over 10 years ago, her husband was hit head-on by a truck and his left arm was amputated at the scene. The truck driver did not have insurance, so Fine’s family had to rely on their own insurance to cover the medical bills.
Amid a seven-month legal battle with her insurance company over coverage of multiple surgeries, Fine said her husband struggled to adjust to his life-changing injury.
It got to the point where her husband tried to take his own life. Fortunately, Fine said, she was able to find her husband in time to make it to the emergency room.
But she said she felt helpless because her insurance company didn’t cover mental health, despite her husband’s urgent need for care.
“We need to make sure that when you’re looking for these services, you have coverage for these services,” Fine said.
Previously, most mental health-related bills heard in the Senate would go to the Human Services Committee, but Fine said that committee was too broad and she wanted to chair one with a more focused approach to mental health.
She said she hopes the new committee, the first of its kind for the Senate, will lead the passage of groundbreaking legislation.
John Patterson, spokesman for Harmon, acknowledged Fine’s dedication to bettering mental health services in the state.
“The Senate believes it deserves a forum for debate and a launching pad for progress,” Patterson said on behalf of Harmon. “The Senate President looks forward to the great work Sen. Fine and the committee will do.”
The House Committee for Addiction and Mental Health has been working for about four years with Conroy as its chair. Conroy saw a need for such a committee when she witnessed the intersectionality of mental health and addiction issues her constituents were facing as the opioid and heroin crisis became prevalent in her district and the state.
As vice chair of that committee, Fine worked closely with Conroy, passing legislation related to mental health parity to ensure that mental health issues would receive the same protections under law as other health issues when it comes to insurance coverage.
The new law, enacted in the state in 2015, includes important provisions to extend and clarify coverage, educate consumers about their rights, require certain minimum treatment benefits and improve enforcement of the law, according to Get Covered Illinois.
“We started that fight together,” Conroy said. “So now that she’s able to actually have a committee devoted to that in the Senate...it’s great news for our state, for our constituents.”
Conroy said their work with mental health parity will continue into the 102nd General Assembly, and she is looking forward to the working relationship between the two committees.
“When you’re able to take on big issues that affect mental health and addiction and you can educate both chambers at the same time, it helps you to expedite that fight and issues much faster than having to go from one chamber to the next,” Conroy said.
Fine said she plans to file a number of mental health-related bills in the new General Assembly, focusing on medical necessity, addressing the need for psychiatrists in mental health deserts and increasing telehealth availability for those seeking safe ways to get help during the pandemic.
“I feel like if we could save one person’s life with this committee, that’s huge,” Fine said. “My goal with this committee is to take away that stigma, so everybody who needs help can seek it and do so in an affordable and accessible way. I’m really excited Illinois is taking mental health seriously.”
Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.