From the Star Tribune:
Stuck in traffic on an April morning in 2002, Paul Wellstone got to talking. “You know,” he said of his fellow lawmakers, “party affiliation counts for less than I once guessed. There are decent folks on both sides of the aisle. Take Jim Ramstad. The guy is — well, really, he’s a total mensch.”
With trademark sentence fragments and Wellstonian gestures, the professor-turned politician expressed a surprising certainty about the future.
“Jim and I have fought, like, forever to win equal treatment for mental illness and addiction — and I’m telling you, he’s just not giving up. He’s a recovering alcoholic. He knows this stuff. No big-bucks insurance lobby will ever get him to back down. I mean, we’re definitely passing these bills next year — no question — but if it takes another 10 years, that guy won’t quit. And neither will I.”
Wellstone’s words might have been entirely on the mark but for a poorly piloted plane. But though his death in October of 2002 stalled the parity quest, his assessment of the Republican named Ramstad was apt. More than a decade after joining Wellstone in this project, Ramstad is as resolute as ever. This year he enlisted Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., to push a revamped bill, which wisely demands that both mental and addictive disorders be treated under the same rules as physical illnesses.
Entitled the Paul Wellstone Mental Health and Addiction Equity Act, the new bill merely changes federal law to reflect scientific fact: Mental illness and addiction — like Alzheimer’s disease and epilepsy — are brain disorders treatable by medical care. There’s no reason to set them apart, and the Ramstad-Kennedy bill thus would bar health insurers from doing so. The measure would end the higher copayments, deductibles and out-of-pocket costs that patients with such brain disorders now pay. It would also nix tighter limits on hospital stays and office visits for these illnesses than for other ailments.
The plan makes a world of sense, and its House sponsors insist this is the year to write it into law. Though the measure’s Senate companion — sponsored by Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. — is meeker, there’s reason to expect the more compelling House bill to prevail. Hopes have risen enough to draw Wellstone’s son David — no ordinary lobbyist — to Washington to make the case for parity.
After all this time, surely lawmakers can grasp the logic: Pretending that brain diseases aren’t “real” illnesses requiring medical care is harmful, not thrifty. It keeps sick people sick, hurts families and deprives society of contributions from citizens helped to recovery.
If lawmakers still don’t get it, perhaps they should call in an expert. Their best bet is Paul Wellstone’s old friend Jim Ramstad — a fiscal conservative who happens to be a recovering alcoholic — not to mention a mensch.