Boost care for mental illness

More of Patrick Kennedy’s parity advocacy:

Just more than a year ago, after a late-night automobile accident and a nationally televised press conference, I got the treatment that changed my life. I was lucky to have good health insurance and access to treatment, but too many Americans do not have the same chance.

Most health plans put up barriers to mental health and addiction care. People seeking treatment for these diseases face higher copayments and deductibles, and arbitrary limits on the number of office visits or inpatient days covered. They pay the same premiums as everybody else, but when they get sick their insurance isn’t there for them.

This year, I have been crisscrossing the country with my colleague, Rep. Jim Ramstad (R-Minn.), holding informal field hearings about mental health and addiction, and how Congress can help more people get well. We heard from consumers and providers, police chiefs and judges, business leaders and insurance executives, hospital presidents and public health officials. All of them see that equalizing benefits is crucial to addressing many goals — around health care, public health, education, criminal justice, homelessness, and on and on.

But what it’s really about — what it’s mostly about — is the American Dream. Ending insurance discrimination is about whether our nation lives up to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, promising every person the chance to reach his or her God-given potential.

It’s about people like Amy Smith from Denver. She told us that when she meets people she knew 25 years ago, they are stunned she is still alive. She was in and out of jail and emergency rooms, unable to connect with other people, muttering to herself on the street, and unemployed. For 45 years, she says, she was a drain on society. Then she finally got the treatment she needed and now she’s a taxpayer, holding down a good job.

Kevin Hines is a young man who told our hearing in Palo Alto about jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge in 2002. Unlike most jumpers, Kevin miraculously survived and he’s getting married this summer. How many others who didn’t survive could have found happiness and success had they had treatment?

The American Dream should not be rationed by diagnosis, and so Congress must pass the Paul Wellstone Mental Health and Addiction Equity Act to end insurance discrimination against Americans with mental illnesses and addictions. We know that improving mental health and addiction benefits can actually reduce health care costs by avoiding unnecessarily hospitalizations, controlling chronic physical diseases, and reducing emergency room visits. It improves productivity in the workplace and cuts down on law enforcement problems.

With that track record, a bipartisan majority of 268 declared House supporters, and strong endorsements from the entire House leadership, passing this insurance equity bill might seem easy. But there are 12 years worth of pent-up Democratic priorities. In Washington, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. And there will be those who ignore the evidence and claim the sky will fall on the health care system if we equalize health insurance benefits.

So Congress needs to hear from everyone who thinks it’s time to bring fairness and equality to insurance coverage for mental illnesses and addictions. Representatives and senators need to know that passing the Paul Wellstone Mental Health and Addiction Equity Act is not just good policy, but good politics as well.

Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (D-R.I.) is lead sponsor of the Paul Wellstone Mental Health and Addiction Equity Act.