Legislature Passes Bill to Promote Children’s Health and Wellness

BOSTON – This week, Senator Cindy Friedman (D-Arlington), Representative Rich Haggerty (D-Woburn), and Representative Michelle Ciccolo (D-Lexington) joined their legislative colleagues in passing An Act Relative to Children’s Health and Wellness to increase access to vital behavioral health services for children in the Commonwealth. The conference committee appointed to reconcile the different language in the Senate and House bills filed compromise language on Monday afternoon.

The conference committee was led by Senator Cindy Friedman (D-Arlington) and Representative Jennifer Benson (D-Lunenburg), the co-chairs of the Health Care Financing Committee. Its other members were Mental Health, Substance Use and Recovery Committee chairs Senator Julian Cyr (D-Truro) and Representative Marjorie Decker (D-Cambridge) as well as Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr (R-Gloucester) and Representative Mathew Muratore (R-Plymouth).

“There are several barriers to access for children in the Commonwealth who are in need of behavioral health services, and this legislation takes several steps to address them,” said Senator Cindy F. Friedman (D-Arlington), co-chair of the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing. “I’m especially proud that this comprehensive bill requires provider network directories to be more transparent and include accurate, up-to-date information to help connect children with the mental health providers that they need. I want to acknowledge Senate President Spilka for putting mental health initiatives at the forefront of our legislative agenda this session as well as sincerely thank Rep. Benson and all of the conferees for their hard work on this issue and their commitment to improving children’s behavioral health services in our state.”

Keeping with the Legislature’s commitment to increase and streamline access to health care, the Children’s Health and Wellness bill will ensure that consumers have the best information available to meet their health needs. Several barriers to care exist for children in need of behavioral health services, partially due to the lack of accurate, up-to-date information listed on provider network directories. More often than not, these directories – often criticized as “ghost networks” – list providers that are no longer in business, do not accept a patient’s insurance, are not taking new patients, or provide inaccurate information. These obstacles keep patients from accessing the care they need, frequently forcing them to abandon seeking treatment.

“Expanding access to behavioral health services for children and connecting families with mental health professionals is one of the most important things we can do to support families in the commonwealth,” said Representative Haggerty. “This children’s wellness legislation will make sure we have better data on children with medical complexities and extends health care for kids in foster care. All of these steps will make our youth live healthier lives.”

To mitigate this barrier to access, this legislation requires insurers’ provider network directories to be more transparent and include the most up-to-date list of participating doctors and specialists and their services. The legislation also forms a task force to study and recommend further improvements to provider directories – particularly information about behavioral health providers.

“Some of the most vulnerable young people are foster children and those with behavioral or complex medical issues, which means that caring for them is particularly critical for us as a Commonwealth,” said Representative Ciccolo.  “In passing this legislation, we have helped to ensure that these kids are able to continue their health care without interruption, creating a foundation for better access to services and care.”

In addition, this legislation addresses issues related to health care access for children who have aged out of the foster care system by automatically enrolling them in MassHealth. Under this bill, individuals under the age of 26 who were previously under Department of Children and Families (DCF) custody, or in foster care when they turned 18 years old, would automatically receive the benefit of MassHealth coverage.

The legislation also directs the Health Policy Commission (HPC), in consultation with the Executive Office of Health and Human Services (EOHHS), the Department of Public Health (DPH), and the Center for Health Information and Analysis (CHIA), to conduct a study and analysis of children with medically complex needs in the Commonwealth. The analysis would include information on health care coverage, access to services, services utilized, and the cost of caring for children with medical complexities.

Additionally, the legislation establishes a pilot program creating three regional Childhood Behavioral Health Centers of Excellence. Each center will act as a resource for families, clinicians, and school districts, with comprehensive information on services in the area for minors in early childhood through adolescence. Each center will maintain updated lists of available pediatric providers, and a staffed telephone number and email address for parents to request information.

The bill addresses several other pressing pediatric health care issues by creating special commissions on the pediatric provider workforce, school-based health centers, and mandated reporter laws, as well as establishing a task force on pediatric behavioral health screening.

The Children’s Health and Wellness Bill now moves to the Governor’s desk for his signature. To track the progress of the legislation, visit: https://malegislature.gov/Bills/191/H4210.