86th LegislatureEducationHealthcareIssuesState HouseState SenateMental Health Bills Advance in House and Senate Amid Privacy Concerns

Mental health bills filed in the aftermath of the Santa Fe shooting last May advance as parental rights and privacy advocates remain wary.
April 25, 2019
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In the aftermath of the Santa Fe High School shooting last May that left 10 dead and 13 others wounded, members of the Texas legislature have focused their efforts on passing legislation to study the mental health of Texas children.

Two of the mental health-related bills filed this legislative session, Senate Bill 10 and House Bill 10, aim to create a new network which would coordinate mental health initiatives and studies across Texas’ health-related institutions of higher education, and their public-private partnerships. Additionally, these bills would create a new program for youth mental health screening through telemedicine and permit pediatricians to directly consult with psychiatry hubs at Texas medical schools.

If created, the network would be tasked with researching new identification and treatment methods for mental health conditions such as depression, substance use disorder, and schizophrenia. The network would also investigate strategies to prevent these conditions in children.

This legislation has broad support in both chambers of the legislature, despite concerns over the impact it could have on privacy and the rights of parents to make healthcare decisions for their children.

Sen. Jane Nelson (R- Flower Mound), the author of SB 10 said, “This initiative focuses heavily on identifying at-risk youth, getting them screened and into treatment so that they don’t present a danger to themselves or others.” SB 10 was co-sponsored by all 31 members of the Texas Senate and was named as an emergency item by Gov. Greg Abbott.

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Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston), author of the House version, aims to achieve similar goals, creating the Texas Mental and Behavioral Health Research Institute. Rep. Thompson stated that, “Texans’ are all too familiar with the tragedies of mental and behavioral health illness. From school shootings, to homelessness, to some of our own family members and friends who struggle with addiction and mental illness.”

Opponents of the bills are concerned these pieces of legislation sacrifice the privacy of Texas children and undermine the rights of parents to direct medical care for their children.

Judy Powell, communications director for the Parent Guidance Center, testified against the bills.

She stated that she and the center are very concerned about informed consent of parents, ensuring choices in treatment, maintaining privacy of treatment and genetic information used for research, and the lack of professionals and organizations who practice alternatives treatments being represented in the research network.

Ms. Powell stated that the Parent Guidance Center had seen cases where Child Protective Services was called to intervene when a parent rescinded consent for treatment after previously providing approval. She testified that these types of interventions jeopardize the ability of a parent to control the medical decisions for their children without fearing the potential ramifications of disagreeing with mental health professionals.

In an effort to address the concerns of opponents, Sen. Bob Hall (R-Edgewood) proposed an amendment to SB 10 restricting the use of any personally identifying information in the research funded by the legislation. Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola) proposed an amendment to require the consent of the child’s parent, legal guardian or caretaker before services are provided to a child younger than 18.

Both amendments were adopted by the Senate.

On the House side, Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Plano) proposed an amendment to HB 10 requiring the consent of the child’s parent or legal guardian before any services, treatment or mental health evaluation is provided to a child younger than 17 years of age. His amendment also requires all research and evaluations be conducted in a manner that complies with state and federal privacy laws, specifically including laws related to patient confidentiality.

This amendment was adopted by the House.

SB 10 passed the Senate and was referred on March 28 to the House Committee on Public Health for consideration. The House passed HB 10 on April 16 sending it to the Senate where it was referred on April 25 to the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services for consideration.

Dates for respective committee hearings on either bill have not yet been set.

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Katie Fisher

Katie Fisher

Katie Fisher is a licensed attorney and writer with a broad range of political, private sector, and ministry experience. A California transplant, Katie earned her J.D. at the age of 21 from Oak Brook College of Law, subsequently passing the bar exam and going into private law practice. Texas became home when she moved to Houston to serve as the Deputy Director of Delegate Operations for the 2016 Cruz for President campaign. She currently resides in the Austin area with her husband and daughter.