I rise today to commend the House for bringing our nation one step closer to achieving long-overdue fairness for people suffering from mental illness and chemical dependency.
We are now one step closer to realizing the dream of my friend, the late Senator Paul Wellstone, who championed equality for those with mental health needs until his untimely death in 2002.
If this law finally passes, as it should, we can thank the persistence of leaders like Reps. Jim Ramstad and Patrick Kennedy, Sens. Pete Domenici and Ted Kennedy, and David Wellstone, who continues to carry the torch lit by his father.
While federal law may not alleviate the stigma that surrounds mental illness, it can bring us closer to ending insurance discrimination and easing the unfair financial burden borne by patients and their families.
Most health care plans currently have barriers to mental health and chemical dependency treatment. Individuals seeking treatment for these health problems face higher co-payments and deductibles – as well as arbitrary limits on the number of office visits or inpatient days covered.
These people pay the same premiums as everybody else, but when they get sick their insurance doesn’t cover them
The House and Senate proposals build upon the Mental Health Parity Act of 1996 by mandating that if an insurer offers mental health and chemical dependency coverage, the treatment limitations can be no more restrictive than for medical benefits.
My state of Minnesota is proud to have one of the strongest mental health parity laws in the country. But this law only goes so far. Federal action will expand mental health parity protections to those covered by self-insured plans – 117 million people – and move us toward real equity for those needing vital services.
It is appropriate that this legislation is named in honor of Paul Wellstone – an inspiring figure whose ceaseless motion and tireless pursuit of a better world was brought to a stop only by a tragic and fatal plane crash.
Many in this body, including myself, counted Paul as a friend.
We all know that Paul was a crusader and a man with many passions. But anyone who ever met or talked with him quickly found out that he had a special passion for helping those with mental illness.
This deep and abiding concern was shaped by the suffering of someone in his own family.
Many of you may know Paul's story about his older brother, Steven. As a young child, Paul watched his brother's traumatic dissent into mental illness. As a freshman in college he suffered a severe mental breakdown and spent the next two years in mental hospitals. Eventually he recovered and graduated from college with honors. But it took his immigrant parents years to pay off the hospital bills.
Writing about this, Paul recalled the years that his brother was hospitalized. For two years, he said, the house always seemed dark, even when the lights were on. It was such a sad home.
Decades later, Paul knew there were far too many sad homes in our great nation – too many families devastated by the physical and financial consequences of mental illness.
Paul knew that we can and we should do better. For years, he fought to allocate funding for better care, better services and better representation for the mentally ill and for years he fought for mental health parity in health insurance coverage.
For Paul, this was always a matter of civil rights, of justice, and of basic human decency. And, of course, on this issue, as every other issue, Sheila and Paul were together.
We should all care about securing mental health and chemical dependency treatment equity for the same reasons that Paul did:
We should care … because of the suffering and stigma that individuals and families endure due to mental illness and addiction.
We should care … because it’s cruel when people with mental health or addiction problems receive lesser care than those with physical health problems.
We should care … because of the enormous financial cost of these diseases for our society and because the economic research shows how cost-effective good treatment can be.
I saw that firsthand as chief prosecutor for my state’s largest county. I can’t tell you the number of violent crime cases I remember where the right treatment would have prevented a horrible crime … and the later costs of imprisonment.
Untreated mental illness and substance abuse adds an enormous burden to the criminal justice system every day. That’s why we created a mental health court that has had many successes, as well as a drug court. But it would better to prevent people from getting into the system in the first place. That’s why this legislation is so important.
Finally, we should care because we know that people who are suffering. 54 million Americans suffer from mental illness or substance abuse.
- Almost 15 million suffer from depression.
- Over 2 million suffer from schizophrenic disorders.
- Over 20 million Americans need treatment for alcohol or drug abuse.
These numbers are staggering.
But ultimately what convinces anyone of the importance of this issue is when we see how real people close to us suffer – whether it’s a son or a daughter, a mother or father, a brother or a sister, a neighbor or a co-worker.
Patrick Kennedy and Jim Ramstad have been brave enough to talk about their own struggles.
I saw it with my dad, a larger-than-life dad who I’ve seen climb the highest mountains, but also plunge to the lowest valleys of despair because of his battle with alcoholism.
My dad got the treatment he needed and I’ve never seen him so happy as in the past ten years. Other families deserve to be, as my dad puts it, “pursued by grace.”
This legislation offers crucial support for people in need.
Several months ago, the Senate unanimously voted in support of mental health equity. The House has now passed its legislation. It is somewhat stronger and I prefer it over the Senate version. But I trust these two bills will be reconciled and signed into law.
This will be a victory for millions of Americans living with mental illness who face unfair discrimination in their access to affordable health care treatment.
Again, I thank my colleagues in the Senate, Sens. Domenici and Kennedy, for their steadfast and persistent work. And I thank Patrick Kennedy and Jim Ramstad for their continuing leadership to bring this historic legislation to a successful vote.