Sen. Joni Ernst claims she's a champion for mental health. Her record says the opposite


Ernst also continues to push the debunked claim that mental illness is the cause of gun violence.

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) launched a new campaign ad Monday, framing herself as a protector of mental health care. But over her six years in the Senate, she has backed numerous attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act — commonly known as Obamacare — and its mental health coverage protections.

Her latest spot features an Iowan who lost her brother to suicide. "If it wasn't for Joni Ernst increasing our telehealth and mental health services, we wouldn't have the support we need," the constituent claims. "I think it's going to save a lot of lives."

While Ernst and Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) did successfully get mental health provisions for rural farmers and ranchers included in a 2018 farm bill, the first-term Republican senator has hardly been a champion of mental health care.

During her 2014 campaign, Ernst ran ads showing her shooting at a gun range, with the narrator claiming that "once she sets her sights on Obamacare, Joni's gonna unload."

Since taking office in 2015, she has repeatedly voted to repeal the ACA and for various iterations of the GOP's Trumpcare plan.

According to a May 2017 Joint Economic Committee analysis by Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Trumpcare would have ended mental health services for millions and imperiled coverage for more than 19,000 Iowans with mental illnesses and substance use disorders who relied on Medicaid expansion or the state's health insurance marketplace.

When Trumpcare was being considered by the House in March 2017, Psychology Today's Katherine Schreiber wrote that "the GOP health bill would, beginning in 2020, remove a requirement set forth in the ACA that mandated Medicaid to cover basic mental and behavioral (including substance-related) health services. This would threaten the care that over 1.28 million people grappling with mental health issues receive thanks to Medicaid's expansion."

Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-MA) called the proposal a "historic attack on mental health care."

"Under the guise of flexibility, this bill would allow states and insurance companies to opt out of covering mental health care — not to mention other designated essential health benefits like maternity and emergency care. Premiums and deductibles would soar as a result. Any semblance of mental health parity would be extinguished," Kennedy wrote in an opinion piece published by STAT in May 2017. "And current protections for those with preexisting conditions — which is particularly important when it comes to mental illness — would cease to exist."

The Senate version of Trumpcare version that Ernst backed would have let states drop mental health treatment requirements for insurance plans if they chose to do so.

Ernst also has repeatedly said mass shootings are a result of "mental illness."

"Routinely blaming mass shootings on mental illness is unfounded and stigmatizing," the American Psychological Association warned in August 2019. "Research has shown that only a very small percentage of violent acts are committed by people who are diagnosed with, or in treatment for, mental illness."

But just days later, Ernst repeated at a town hall that mass gun violence was caused by mental illness.

"Any time we see these types of incidents, it is a mental health issue. There is nobody in their right mind that would engage in these types of acts," she said. "So, we do have to focus more on stability and mental health supports and behavioral health, and hopefully be able to catch those individuals, engage them in a different way."

Ernst faces Democratic nominee and businesswoman Theresa Greenfield in the November election. A Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll conducted last week found Ernst trailing by 3 points, similar to poll results obtained in June.

"I will admit to some skepticism about the numbers that we saw in June because we were so close to the primary and Theresa Greenfield was relatively unknown," pollster J. Ann Selzer, president of the firm that conducted the poll, told the Register. "But she is holding her own, and I think that says something about Joni Ernst's vulnerability."

An Ernst spokesperson did not immediately respond to an inquiry for this story.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.