Massachusetts Sen. John Velis (D) has a strong track record of sponsoring legislation to help people with disabilities better access services.
Velis has worked with lawmakers from across the country as part of a bipartisan task force to create a policy framework states can use to improve employee mental health. The Mental Health Matters: National Task Force on Workforce Mental Health Policy, which is an initiative of the Labor Department’s State Exchange on Employment and Disability, or SEED, convened this year in Charleston, S.C., and Chicago. The framework will be published by NCSL, the Council of State Governments and SEED later this summer.
Velis spoke with NCSL about his legislative work and the efforts of the task force.
Can you share with us your legislative efforts around behavioral health issues since you have been in office?
As the Senate chair of the Massachusetts Legislature’s Joint Committee on Mental Health, Substance Use and Recovery, a lot of my work this session has focused on behavioral health issues, especially those that have arisen since the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last session, we successfully passed the Mental Health ABC Act, which focused on how behavioral health care is delivered. From addressing emergency room boarding, to ensuring parity for mental health care, to requiring coverage for a yearly mental health wellness exam, just like a physical, the bill put some really comprehensive measures into law that I was proud to work on.
Why do access to behavioral health services and workplace mental health resonate with you?
As a veteran, I’ve seen firsthand the impact and toll that behavioral health disorders can have on a person if left untreated. And that applies across the board to everyone in our communities. It takes a lot of courage to raise your hand and say you need help, but then we have to ensure that the services are actually there for folks to get care.
“Every state is different and is going to have slightly different needs, but we all recognize that this is an issue that we are all facing right now and that in a lot of ways we need to respond together.”
What challenges have you faced in working to improve access to mental and behavioral health in your state? How were they resolved?
One of the biggest challenges that we have faced is around insurance coverage of behavioral health care. Our insurance system is truly complex, and different plans consider services differently. It is absolutely a challenge to build a framework that ensures that folks with private insurance, those with MassHealth (a program combining Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program), or those who are uninsured are all getting access to these services.
What did you take away from the Mental Health Matters task force meetings in Charleston and Chicago?
The best thing in my mind about these meetings is the opportunity to hear perspectives and ideas from all across the country. We are in a national behavioral health crisis right now, and legislators in every state are working on ways to respond. It’s been fascinating to hear what other states are implementing and then consider what I might be able to bring home to my colleagues in Massachusetts.
What do you most hope comes out of the task force effort?
Aside from the process of collaboration and sharing of ideas, I really hope we get to a point where we have some sort of general framework of best practices. Every state is different and is going to have slightly different needs, but we all recognize that this is an issue that we are all facing right now and that in a lot of ways we need to respond together.
Glenn Jacoby is a policy associate in NCSL’s Employment, Labor and Retirement Program.
A portion of this effort was funded by the Office of Disability Employment Policy through the U.S. Department of Labor’s State Exchange on Employment and Disability. The responses in this interview, and references to any other organization’s resources, do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Office of Disability Employment Policy or the Labor Department; nor does the mention of trade names, commercial products or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. government.