Late Friday afternoon, Senator Roy Blunt held a press conference at the Betty Jean Kerr People's Health Center in St. Louis to promote his plan to improve mental health treatment across the country.
The time is right, he told reporters, since people want concrete actions taken in response to the tragedies that have damaged communities throughout the nation.
But when pressed on questions of guns and background checks, he didn't have too much to say, except that gun control was not the topic at hand -- and that neighbors should be able to trade shot guns without government getting in the way.
Blunt is pushing a series of bills that he unveiled the week prior as part of an effort to better put federal dollars toward mental health treatment improvements in the wake of the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. He has introduced the "Excellence in Mental Health Act," a bipartisan bill that would give Community Mental Health Centers across the country the opportunity to obtain federal funding and has also cosponsored a "Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Act," which would improve access to mental health services for those in the criminal justice system.
"The moment is right to look at mental health," he told reporters in a brief press conference after he had met with officials at the St. Louis center. "If you're gonna deal with it, you need to deal with it at a time when people are interested in dealing with it. It is easily pushed to the back burner of health care. So I think the time is right to look at this. I think people understand that it's a component of some of the tragedies that we've dealt with in the last few years."
Blunt emphasized the importance of an integrated model, where patients can seek behavioral health treatment at the same place they receive primary care.
"We know that...if we send them down the street for [mental health] help, they're likely to show up twenty to thirty percent of the time," said Dwayne Butler, CEO of the People's Health Centers. "If we send them down the hall in the same building, that number goes up to about sixty or seventy percent of the time. But if we bring the psychiatrist or psychologist into the exam room when they are with their primary care [doctor]...we get one hundred percent compliance."
Part of the discussion around reducing the risk of these terrible tragedies has been about ways that law enforcement can better keep guns out of the hands of those who struggle with mental health problems or have a criminal history. There's been a contentious debate on this in Missouri, where there is a proposal in the legislature to require all sales or transfers of guns go through a licensed dealer.
After Blunt said there needs to be better systems for people to report mental health concerns, a reporter asked him if that's an argument for truly universal background checks.
"No, but it's an argument for adding mental health information to background checks -- whatever background checks happen," he said. "And you're much more likely to catch that problem in a background check then you are a criminal problem. Most criminals are gonna figure out how to get guns without going through a background check. You're never gonna have universal background checks."
He added, "That's a separate issue than providing those services at this facility -- and you wouldn't want to confuse the two."
A reporter later questioned Blunt again on closing the loophole at gun shows that allow buyers -- regardless of mental health status -- to purchase guns from private sellers. After arguing with the reporter back and forth about what the current laws actually are, Blunt said, "Here's the deal. I'm gonna decide where is the best way to deal with this problem -- to put my personal effort. I happen to believe it's gonna be more likely we are gonna get something very positive done on the health care part of this agenda than the other part."
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