Christine Stuart photo
U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy and Mary Kate Mason of the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (Christine Stuart photo)

Though he said it should not be considered an end-run around far more controversial gun reform bills he has championed, Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy is proposing what he calls a major restructuring of mental health support systems, and believes it might actually have a chance to pass.

“This rash of mass shootings has had the effect of unlocking the conscience of the Senate and the House,” Murphy said during a short telephone interview. “We do not have the votes to pass meaningful changes in our gun laws. We do have the votes to pass mental health reform.”

The key to passing the new legislation, called “The Mental Health Reform Act of 2015,” is, like many things, not about what you know but who you know. Murphy has teamed up with Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., and the House version was proposed earlier this year by another Republican, Murphy’s namesake Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa.

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Murphy, called it “a political opportunity.” He formally announced the bill’s introduction Friday at Middlesex Hospital in Middletown.

At the gathering in Middletown, Murphy said he convened a dozen roundtables across the state to get input from stakeholders before finalizing the most bipartisan bill he could.

“It’s not the bill I would have drafted, but when you’re negotiating you often get something that may not be perfect, but is very good,” Murphy told stakeholders.

He said the hope is by showing a conservative Republican from the deep South and a progressive Democrat from the Northeast can agree on a comprehensive set of mental health reforms that it will “paint a path forward for its passage through the Senate.”

Asked about how long it would take to get passed, Murphy estimated Congress has about 8 months before electoral politics take over. That being said, Murphy said he thinks the bill has a better chance than most because Congress doesn’t want to go into the 2016 election without having passed anything to address the issue of behavioral health. He said the bill has a chance because mental health is “less partisan” than other issues.

The most partisan thing about the bill is the price tag.

“This bill will have a cost,” Murphy said. “There are a number of Republicans who are deeply allergic to spending anything.”

But that’s where Cassidy’s support is crucial. Murphy said Cassidy is able to explain how the cost of not doing anything is much greater than the price tag on the bill.

The proposed measure, S.1945, calls for, among other provisions, the creation of a new post, an Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Use within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Money would be made available for states to integrate physical and mental health programs and for early intervention programs, intended to target children three years old and younger.

There also is a push to guarantee parity between how insurers cover mental and physical health issues, requiring the U.S. departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and the Treasury to conduct audits on how insurance companies treat the two.

“As a doctor and as a person, I know people in my life who are affected by mental illness,” Cassidy said in a release. “We all do — we all have seen the homeless veteran who needs and deserves care, or the person we went to high school with who is missing the reunion because they are struggling with serious mental illness. Many have their first episode of major mental illness between the ages of 15 and 25, starting down a path that ends with their life and their family’s lives being tragically altered.”

The bill would also “clarify” sections of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPPA), which does allow family members to have a role in treatment of adult patients, even when the patient says “no” under certain circumstances.

HIPPA’s sections on patient rights are often used as a legal framework to bar family members and caregivers from playing a role in an adult patient’s care, though doctors do have the discretion to allow family involvement despite a patient’s wishes to the opposite, Murphy said, “If it’s in the best interest of the patient.”

“It’s not that the standard is wrong, it’s that it’s misinterpreted,” Murphy said. “Doctors are often overly cautious about HIPPA.”

Murphy has been a vocal presence in the Senate on the issue of gun violence, speaking on the floor in favor of regulation more than 30 times in the past two years. And while the two issues may be inexorably linked because of repeated shootings involving allegedly mentally ill individuals — from Dylann Roof, who was recently charged in with killing nine churchgoers in June, to James Holmes, who was convicted in July of the 2012 murder of 12 people at a Colorado movie theater — Murphy said they should be seen as distinct concerns.

“We should fix our broken mental health system because it isn’t working for patients. Full stop,” Murphy said.

Jordan Fenster can be reached by or @JordanFenster on Twitter.