Newsom signs bills to expand access to quality behavioral health care for all Californians and help homeless Californians suffering extreme mental illness on streets, sidewalks

California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a package of bills that will improve access to quality mental health and substance use disorder services for all Californians, as well as measures that help homeless Californians suffering from behavioral health challenges access the help they need.

Newsom devoted the entirety of his 2020 State of the State address to the interwoven challenges of homelessness, housing insecurity and behavioral health and proposed a number of specific reforms – some of which he is signing into law today.

“The bills I am signing today will help Californians access the behavioral health services they need to recover,” said Newsom. “Earlier this year, I pledged to put these critical services within reach of more Californians, through reforming our Mental Health Services Act and laws that allow loved ones and service providers to ask courts to compel those who need treatment into community-based outpatient care. Today, we do just that.”

In his 2020 State of the State address, Newsom directly called for reforms to behavioral health laws that were ahead of their time when originally implemented decades ago, but now require improvements. Specifically, the governor stated his support for removing conditions imposed on counties trying to implement Laura’s Law.

AB 1976 by Assemblymember Susan Talamantes Eggman, which Newsom signed, accomplishes this by expanding county use of court-ordered outpatient treatment.

“The Assisted Outpatient Treatment demonstration project started by Laura’s Law has shown for many years that we have the tools to provide effective, community-based mental health treatment to those with the greatest need. As a social worker I’ve long fought for the extension of these critical services, and expanding this program and finally making it permanent will ensure greater care for the people of California,” said Eggman.

In his State of the State address, the governor said Mental Health Services Act funds should be used for substance abuse treatment and not just mental health care.

The governor signed AB 2265 by Assemblymember Sharon Quirk-Silva, which clarifies that specified MHSA funds can be used for treatment of co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders. Counties will now be able to use MHSA funds to assess and treat individuals with a co-occurring disorder, increasing access to substance use disorder treatment, improving care coordination and leading to a more integrated behavioral health care system.

“The effects and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, economic loss, and devastating wildfires, have brought upon a crisis of stress, depression, and anxiety to Californians. Today governor Newsom took an important step forward by signing AB 2265, which will provide much needed clarity to existing statute in order for counties to treat those who are experiencing mental health issues in addition to substance use or alcohol disorders,” said Quirk-Silva.

Bills in this package will also divert, when appropriate, individuals in crisis at emergency rooms to sobering centers and mental health facilities and encourage the creation of a state office to identify and address causes of suicide.

SB 803 by Senator Jim Beall supports statewide standards for behavioral health Peer Support Specialists and adds these services as an option in Medi-Cal. Peer Support Specialists are people with lived experience with mental health and/or substance use disorders and are in a unique position to earn trust and build bridges for people on the path to recovery. Statewide standards will ensure consistency and quality of service while offering a level of validity and respect to the position, while satisfying a federal requirement to allow Medi-Cal billing.

“Peer support services are evidence-based, and a cost-effective model of care proven to reduce cost and increase participation in treatment. Forty-eight other states have seen the benefit and value of peer support services; now it is time for California to catch up and establish a peer support specialist certification process,” said Beall.

In addition, the governor signed SB 855 by Senator Scott Wiener, a long-sought reform that strengthens California’s mental health parity statute by requiring commercial health plans and insurers to provide full coverage for the treatment of all mental health conditions and substance use disorders and establishes specific standards for what constitutes medically necessary treatment and criteria for the use of clinical guidelines.

“Mental healthcare is essential to a person’s overall health, and today, we reaffirmed that people must have access to care for mental health and addiction challenges. California’s mental health parity law has huge loopholes — which the insurance industry has used to deny critically important care — and today that loophole was closed. SB 855 sends a powerful message to the nation that California prioritizes the mental health of its residents. I’m proud of my colleagues and the governor for getting it and enacting this legislation into law,” said Wiener.

This legislation builds on Newsom’s efforts to improve the state’s behavioral health delivery system and help better serve individuals experiencing mental illness. In January, the governor formed a Behavioral Health Task Force to address the urgent mental health and substance use disorder needs across California.

Additionally, the 2020-2021 state budget approved strategies to strengthen enforcement of behavioral health parity laws including focused investigations of commercial health plans regulated by the Department of Managed Health Care to further evaluate plan compliance with parity and assess whether enrollees have consistent access to medically necessary behavioral health care services. In his State of the State address earlier this year, Newsom said Mental Health Services Act funds should be used for substance abuse treatment and not just mental health care.