By BETSY TAYLOR
NEW ORLEANS — Just as the United States has rallied its minds and brought together its resources to fight against cancer and HIV/AIDS in recent decades, so too the country needs to focus its efforts to better screen for mental illness and addiction, advance research and effective treatments, and work to promote mental wellness. That was one of the calls from mental health advocate and former Rhode Island Congressman Patrick Kennedy when he addressed the 2017 Catholic Health Assembly on June 12.
Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr./© CHA
Kennedy, a Democratic congressman from 1995 to 2011, was the lead sponsor of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008. The law requires insurers to cover care for brain diseases as they do diseases of the body. Kennedy, who has depression and bipolar disorder, told the audience he has been in recovery for substance abuse since 2011. His parents Joan and the late Sen. Edward "Ted" Kennedy struggled with alcohol abuse, he said. "They say alcoholism runs in families. It gallops in my family," he said.
If addiction and mental illness were thought of like an infectious disease, there would be a lot less talk about the crisis and a lot more action, he said. It's an uncertain time in the nation when it comes to the future of health insurance coverage and access for tens of millions of Americans. While health care organizations continue the fight to make care a right, not a privilege, they should also commit to immediate steps to improve mental health care in the United States, he said.
As Republican-led proposals move forward to replace the Affordable Care Act, health care systems and providers need to defend safety net programs like Medicaid and work to advance care approaches to aid the most vulnerable. "We need to be ready to push back," he said.
And more than play defense, he spoke about a forward-thinking approach to mental health care. His uncle, President John F. Kennedy, set a vision for humanity to voyage to the moon. On the 50th anniversary of the president voicing that goal, Patrick Kennedy called on leading neuroscientists in 2011 to think of themselves as the astronauts of today, launching "an exploration of inner space." He told the audience at the assembly the One Mind nonprofit organization he co-founded is dedicated to rethinking brain injury and illness, supporting the bringing together of different fields of research and medicine for whole systems analysis of the human brain and body.
His Kennedy Forum, a nonprofit working to improve how addictions and mental health are treated by health care systems, is working with other organizations on ParityTrack, an effort to document instances when providers or patients have failed to get reimbursement for mental health or addiction recovery care. ParityTrack gathers cases to share with states' attorneys general for possible legal action to enforce parity law that requires health insurance plans to cover behavioral health benefits and physical health benefits equally. Kennedy said such work will aid those with addiction and behavioral health issues who are "pushed down, pushed out, marginalized" and who need advocates to stand up for their rights and to advance a national care agenda.
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