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In win for Sen. Murphy & Sandy Hook families, President Obama signs Mental Health Reform Act

WASHINGTON -- On Tuesday afternoon, President Barack Obama signed into law the Mental Health Reform Act, written by Connecticut Sen. Murphy and Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana.

"This bill is a huge step in the right direction," Sen. Murphy told FOX 61 on Tuesday from Washington, D.C.

The Mental Health Reform Act introduces reforms to make insurance companies cover mental illness more extensively, provides more funding for prevention, gives more rights to parents with adult children facing mental illness and creates more coordination between mental and physical health systems. It also provides $1 billion over two years for opioid treatment and prevention.

Sen. Murphy said the legislation addresses discrimination surrounding mental health.

"When your insurance company treats you differently based on whether you broke something from the neck down or from the neck up, it reinforces this idea that people with mental illness are lesser than others," said Sen. Murphy. "This bill starts to end that."

Sen. Murphy said Sandy Hook families were a big part of the bill.

"I know that this is the first real legislative success for a lot of the families in Sandy Hook," he said. "And I know that as much as it's an impactful policy, it's also psychologically impactful for a lot of those families."

Pat Rehmer, President of Hartford HealthCare's Behavioral Health Network, said one of the biggest improvements since Sandy Hook has been the introduction of mental health first aid to teachers and first responders.

"It really is about teaching people to look for signs and symptoms, ways you might be able to help somebody who looks like they're having difficulty," said Rehmer.

Currently, Rehmer said psychiatric emergencies are treated differently in hospitals, requiring insurance authorization before receiving care.

"But if somebody comes in with a medical emergency, I don't think that we're picking up the phone and calling an insurance company and saying, 'Can we admit them?" she said.

Rehmer added that one in four people will experience mental illness in some form in their lifetime, but many go untreated.

"I can tell you that we don't have one in four individuals in the State of Connecticut in treatment or looking for assistance," she said.

She hopes the Mental Health Reform Act is a step in the right direction.

"They need to be treated just like any other citizen," said Rehmer.