Kennedy Urges Equal Treatment, Coverage For Mental Health

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DAVENPORT — Speaking from personal experience, former Congressman Patrick Kennedy on Sunday argued passionately for implementing a 2008 mental-health parity law he authored and helped pass.

Kicking off a week of Vera French Foundation events on mental illness, the 47-year-old son of the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy said we must put pressure on the federal government and insurance companies to properly cover mental health treatment. The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 requires equal coverage of brain illnesses as any other physical ailment.

"You're lucky you get treatment to begin with. Two-thirds of people with mental health benefits never even avail themselves of treatment, even if they need it, because of the stigma of getting treatment," Mr. Kennedy said Sunday night at the Adler Theatre.

"So you can imagine someone finally works up the nerve to get treatment, and then they're denied? The insurance companies know a certain percentage of them are just gonna go away without bothering to appeal. We need to change that," he said.

If patients "had a stroke or heart attack or some other critical issue, they wouldn't have to spend a nanosecond calling their insurance company to see if it was going to be a covered stay or not," Mr. Kennedy said.

The youngest member of Congress when first elected, Mr. Kennedy served 16 years in the House of Representatives on behalf of a Rhode Island district, until 2011. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, he first entered a drug rehabilitation program at 17, admitted abusing pain pills and alcohol as an adult, and said he took prescription medication to calm stomach inflammation and help him sleep the night he was arrested in 2006 for driving under the influence.

Mr. Kennedy said he didn't hide his own personal history, and in 2006 was re-elected by the widest margin in his political career. The parity bill succeeded by being attached to the $800-billion financial bailout of banks, thanks to a suggestion of former Sen. Chris Dodd, he said, glad it passed before comprehensive health-care reform was adopted in 2010 because controversial things were being dropped left and right.

However, it wasn't fully implemented by the administration until five years later.

"This is the very first year, in history, this country is finally treating brain illnesses like any other illness of the body," Mr. Kennedy said proudly.

Challenges include not only payment and funding for mental-health and drug treatment services, but preventive care and early treatment, he said.

"If you have diabetes, we do not wait until you go blind or have your legs amputated, right?" Mr. Kennedy said. "We don't wait until you have stage-four cancer and you're at death's door. We do screenings."

He has taken Lipitor for high cholesterol since his 30s. "Do we have that same urgency for those who suffer from mental illness or addiction? We don't," he said. "Because if you compare to cancer or diabetes, we wait until your mental illness or addiction is stage four before our medical system even begins to respond. That's why we throw up our hands and say, these illnesses are too difficult."

"We know today more than ever what are genetic and environmental contributors for someone having a mental illness or addiction," Mr. Kennedy said, noting family history and living conditions. "Do we do any screening? We don't."

In a personal example, he said when he saw a new doctor in New Jersey, he was asked about his asthma at length, but nothing about his mental health, despite offering his full history (including alcoholism and depression in his family).

"The thing that has the greatest chance of killing me is my addiction and my mood disorder, and yet they are the two things that are left out of any physician's visit, even though I am the poster child for mental health and addiction services," Mr. Kennedy said.

As all patients are checked for vital signs like blood pressure, everyone needs "a checkup from the neck up, and that becomes routine from childhood through adulthood," he said. "Then health care is health care; it's not mental health care. It's not health care here, and mental health care down at the end of the hallway."

Like his uncle, President John F. Kennedy, inspired America to win the race to outer space and the Moon, the former Congressman urged a race "to inner space," and the catalyst for that race will be "the signature wound of war in Iraq and Afghanistan" — the high incidence of traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress of veterans, Mr. Kennedy said.

"They are leaving our veterans suffering in silence. We call these wounds of war invisible," he said, noting any neuroscientist will say they are visible. "If we don't see it on the outside, we don't think it's real. Now our veterans are taking their lives — 22 veterans a day — in this country."

"The notion we wouldn't do more to understand and treat these illnesses is baffling to me," he said, adding what may change the national attitude is the experience of veterans. "When veterans win, we'll all end up being winners."

Any physical should ask about family history of mental illness or addiction, Mr. Kennedy said. "It's a genetic illness," and could be preempted like any other physical illness, if you know you're at risk, he said.

Mr. Kennedy is co-founder of One Mind for Research, a national coalition seeking new treatments and cures for neurological and psychiatric diseases afflicting one in three Americans, and is founder of the Kennedy Forum on Community Mental Health, which marked the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy's signing of the Community Mental Health Act

Anne Armknecht, CEO of Vera French Mental Health Center, said her organization works to "create awareness and help break societal barriers that prevent people from accessing and receiving appropriate mental health services." She said Mr. Kennedy has "worked tirelessly on these issues for many years."

"I believe we can create hope," Ms. Armknecht said, noting 40,000 Americans last year died from suicide. "We need this to stop. We need to end the discrimination. We need to end the shame, and we need to give our hearts to these individuals."

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