Groups renew push for mental-health parity

Groups renew push for mental-health parity WASHINGTON, Sept. 22 (UPI) — Millions of Americans struggling with addictions are denied adequate health insurance, a symptom of society’s widespread discrimination and ignorance of mental illness, treatment advocates said Thursday.

“If this happened with any other disease, there would be a public outcry,” Douglas Tieman, chief executive officer of Caron Treatment Centers, said at a Capitol Hill news conference. “But it goes widely unnoticed in our society.”

Caron, a national network of alcohol and drug addiction treatment centers, joined with the Betty Ford Center to call for the passage of the stalled Paul Wellstone Mental Health Equitable Treatment Act of 2005, which would require insurance providers to place mental-health diseases on par with other chronic conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease.

The bill was originally introduced in the Senate in 2001, before the death of the Democratic senator from Minnesota, Paul Wellstone. In March 2005 the bill was re-introduced in the House by co-sponsors Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., and Jim Ramstad, R-Minn.

While it has garnered bipartisan support in the Senate and House, the legislation has failed to win enactment. Meanwhile, more than 30 states have already enacted laws that require some form of mental-health parity.

“There is an unfinished agenda for civil rights in this country,” Kennedy said. “We need to bring this country into the modern age and treat illnesses of the brain as if they were part of the body.”

Kennedy has battled with depression and addiction in the past, a subject he openly addressed at the conference.

“I refuse to be told that my mental illness is worth less than my asthma,” he said.

If enacted, the bill would prohibit a group health plan from limiting treatment or imposing financial requirements — such as increased copayments — for people with mental illness. The requirements would not apply to plans and coverage for small employers.

In 2004, 22.5 million Americans were substance abusers, yet only 3.8 million got treatment for their condition, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

About 270,000 people with insurance did not get proper treatment, and 150,000 died as a result of their addiction, Ramstad said. This is due in part to prohibitively high copayments and premiums, as well as limitations on their number of treatments, he added.

Insurance companies often set strict caps on how many mental-health treatment sessions are allowed per patient, Ralph Ibson, vice president of government affairs for the National Mental Health Association, told United Press International.

This discourages people in need from seeking help, while at the same time deepening society’s stigma against the mentally ill. Although scientists have proven mental illness and tendencies toward addiction are physical problems within the brain, a belief that addicts and drug abusers lack the will to control themselves still lingers.

“(The Wellstone act) remedies a disparity which has the effect of denying people access to care for illnesses which are common, very disabling and often lead to premature death,” often by suicide, Ibson added.

Opponents of insurance parity claim enacting the bill would add a financial burden to healthcare, although Ibson claims multiple studies have shown additional healthcare costs would be modest.

Chemical addiction currently costs the nation 0 billion in healthcare and social services costs.

At the news conference Tieman also unveiled a new Web site,, which will give families of the addicted and mentally ill — as well as the sufferers themselves — a resource to seek help. Since addiction is a “disease of denial,” families are key to intervention, Tieman told United Press International.

No major action has been taken on the Wellstone legislation since April 2005, but the bill’s 228 sponsors and 69 Senate supporters are a sign of a “growing momentum,” Tieman said.

© Copyright 2006 United Press International, Inc.

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