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New York legislation would bring parity to treatment of mental and physical health conditions

The textual changes to the New York state Constitution would be minor. But lawmakers behind a pair of bills say their proposals could lead to major – and long-overdue – changes.

Early this year, state Sen. Elijah Reichlin-Melnick, D-Rockland, and state Assemblywoman Didi Barrett, D-Columbia, introduced Senate Bill S.3995 and Assembly Bill A.5238, respectively.

If adopted, the pair of bills would bring parity to the treatment services available to New Yorkers diagnosed with mental and physical health conditions. The state constitution’s statements on mental health, in particular, have not been updated since 1938.

The overarching issues and concerns with mental health have been a focal point this past unprecedented year as people have struggled with the pandemic in a variety of ways – some struggling financially and others suffering from social isolation, among other challenges.

At a recent news conference, Barrett outlined the reasons she was sponsoring the legislation in the Assembly, pointing to the timeliness of its importance as society begins digging out of the pandemic.

“After the year we have just lived through, there probably isn’t a person in our state who doesn’t have a greater understanding of mental health now,” Barrett said. “I have been proud to sponsor this overdue amendment.”

Reichlin-Melnick said the bills signify the ever-evolving ways mental health conditions can be treated, and the need to make legislative reforms to follow suit.

“For far too long, in the state of New York, there have been two different systems, two different schools of thought, a structure of ‘separate, but equal’ treatment that has created a stigma around mental health and has had very real impacts on the way that mental health care is administered in New York state,” Reichlin-Melnick said.

At its core, the legislation calls for textual changes to the Constitution, proclaiming mental and physical health “will be matters of public concern and provision, therefore shall be made by the state and by such of its subdivisions.”

Barrett said the Constitutional amendment “signal(s) our commitment to support families and individuals who need to access mental or behavioral health treatment.”

The bills are gaining momentum in both chambers of the Legislature. Senators advanced S.3995 to a third reading at a session May 19.

In the Assembly, A.5238 received a favorable recommendation from the Judiciary Committee on May 26, and the bill has since been forwarded to the Ways and Means Committee.

The bills have gained support from outside organizations, including the New York state chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

In a statement, Matthew Shapiro, associate director of public affairs with NAMI-NYS, said the chapter has long advocated for equality between mental and physical health, as it relates to the urgency of treatment.

“It is now more important than ever for New York state to make this recognition, as we as a state cannot begin to recover and move forward from the events of the past year without addressing mental health and having parity to ensure that psychiatric issues are fully covered,” Shapiro said.

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