October 24, 2014, Washington, D.C. – Amir Afkhami is demonstrating how Iranian Americans are now, more than ever, engaging in the legislative process at the national level. Afkhami, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health Policy Fellow, served as a legislative policy advisor to Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) from 2013-2014, where his collaborative efforts led to the passage of the Excellence in Mental Health Act.
As a member of Senator Stabenow’s legislative team, Afkhami participated in the development and passage of the Excellence in Mental Health Act where he provided the technical expertise necessary to ensure that the spirit of the legislation met the realities of health care on the ground. On March 31, 2014, the Excellence in Mental Health Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama as an amendment to the Protecting Access to Medicare Act of 2014 (H.R. 4302).
“I was ecstatic about the passage of the larger ‘doc fix’ bill (H.R. 4302),” Afkhami told PAAIA in an interview. “I was especially thrilled that the Senator’s Excellence in Mental Health Act was included because this was the largest funded expansion of community mental health programs in over a generation.”
A majority of patients in the community mental healthcare system struggle with a number of non-psychiatric chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, whose treatment is impeded by a lack of access to adequate mental healthcare. Afkhami believes that the passage of the Excellence in Mental Health Act will not only enhance mental health care in the United States, but will also improve these non-psychiatric conditions that will be treated in the newly designated Community Behavioral Health Clinics that will grow out of this legislation. He also pointed out that with increased access to quality mental health care, we will most likely see a reduction in recidivism into our prison systems given that over a third of individuals in federal and state prisons have a primary mental illness such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depressive disorder. “Our prisons have become our largest psychiatric hospitals and that’s not right,” Afkhami told PAAIA. “The Excellence in Mental Health Act will begin the process of reversing this trend.”
The legislation includes a two-year demonstration program in eight states and ensures that mental health services are paid on the same level as other health services. The Department of Health and Human Services is currently developing the regulations for implementing this legislation and working on the details in keeping the spirit of the law, which should be released in the coming year.
Afkhami is a board-certified psychiatrist and a professor of psychiatry and global health at the George Washington University’s Schools of Medicine and Public Health. He also holds a doctorate in Iranian history. Before his debut on Capitol Hill, Afkhami authored and helped lead the State Department funded Iraq Mental Health Initiative between 2007 and 2010 which contributed to stabilizing Iraq and rebuilding its healthcare infrastructure. Additionally, in 2012-2013 he helped develop a program to reduce war-related trauma among Afghan civilians as part of the United States Agency for International Development’s Afghanistan Civilian Assistance Program.
Afkhami told PAAIA that he strongly encourages the Iranian American community to get involved in the legislative process, and furthermore, to not only concentrate on U.S.-Iran relations, but rather embrace issues that affect our daily lives here in the U.S.
“One of my discoveries while working in the Senate was the number of brilliant Iranian Americans that work at senior staff levels,” Afkhami said. “These individuals are playing essential roles in shaping our country’s economic prospects, the future of our children’s education, and our healthcare trajectory. I encourage all Iranians to get involved, at any point in their lives, in public service and in our nation’s policy making process.”