Editorial: A victory for mental health

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

Lost in last week's drama over the Wall Street bailout bill was the Congress' passage of landmark legislation that will touch the lives of millions of Americans suffering from mental illness.

The Mental Health Parity Act requires health insurance policies extend the same coverage for treatment of mental illness and addiction as they do for physical illnesses. The law, which takes effect Jan. 1, 2010, will end a legal discrimination against people with mental illness that is rooted, in large part, in the historic misunderstanding of diseases of the brain.

The act cleared its final hurdle by being grafted to the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act rushed through Congress last week, but there was nothing hasty about this piece of legislating. It has been studied and debated in Congress for more than a decade. Its enactment reflects changes in the way Americans think about mental illness and an unusual effort to replace conflict between groups with an interest in public policy with consensus built from the ground up.

There's a personal side to this legislative victory. The issue directly touched two senators, Republican Pete Dominici of New Mexico, whose daughter was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and the late Paul Wellstone, a Minnesota Democrat, whose brother was mentally ill. The pair pushed a limited parity bill through Congress in 1996.

After Wellstone was killed in a plane crash in 2002, Dominici teamed with Sen. Ted Kennedy to push for full parity. Kennedy's son, Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island, who spoke candidly about his own mental health problems after his late-night car crash near the Capitol in 2006, took on the challenge on the House side, teaming with Rep. Jim Ramstad, a Minnesota Republican who had fought his own battle with alcoholism.

Their efforts were reinforced by scientific advances, which have found biological factors in schizophrenia, depression and other mental illnesses. New treatments and new candor by those who have had mental illnesses and their families have helped reduce the stigma, undermining the rationale behind the insurance companies' practices. Employers came to realize that mental health and addiction treatment helped make their employees more productive. A report from the Congressional Budget Office that the coverage would increase premiums by just two-tenths of 1 percent blunted a major argument against extending coverage.

Those factors, along with constant pressure from Kennedy, Domenici and their allies, brought insurers, advocates and employer groups to the table. "It was an incredible process," a lobbyist for a business group told The New York Times. "We built the bill piece by piece from the ground up. It's a good harbinger for future efforts on health care reform."

The bill isn't perfect. It offers little help for those without employer-provided health insurance, and companies with fewer than 50 employees are exempt. But according to the nonprofit group Mental Health America, 67 percent of adults and 80 percent of children requiring mental health services don't get the help they need, often because of insurance limits. This bill gives millions of Americans access to treatment that can immeasurably enhance the quality of their lives.

Pete Domenici is leaving the Senate after having been diagnosed with a progressive brain disease. Ted Kennedy pushed this bill to enactment from his home on Cape Cod, where he is being treated for brain cancer, adding another powerful achievement to his legislative legacy.