By Kelsey Hopper
BU News Service
WASHINGTON–Fifty years after President John F. Kennedy signed the Community Mental Health Act in October 1963 to improve treatment for mental illness, his nephew, former Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., Thursday appeared before a Senate subcommittee to discuss more recent legislative efforts on this issue.
On Friday — five years after the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 was enacted in an effort to end discrimination in insurance coverage — the final regulation to put the law into effect will be proposed, after years of what critics say has been a lack of clarity on how to provide equal coverage to mental health patients.
“My message to this committee is that the final rule is not the final word on this issue,” said Kennedy, who was a sponsor of the law while in Congress. He added, “It’s the first step.”
Kennedy, who has largely devoted himself to promoting awareness and treatment of mental illness since leaving Congress, has publicly acknowledged battles with bipolar disorder, depression and substance addiction.
His appearance on Capitol Hill, where he served in the House from 1994 to 2010, came as a Senate Judiciary subcommittee – chaired by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. — held a two-part hearing on delays in federal rule-making. Members of the first panel at Thursday’s hearing contended that the federal rule-making process has delayed equal access to needed mental health treatments.
Southington, Conn. resident Cathy Morelli testified about her efforts to obtain insurance coverage for treatments for her teenage daughter, who began suffering from a mental illness in 2012.
“With the lack of regulations, these health insurers will not stop their discriminatory practices toward the treatment of mental illness,” charged Morelli.
The mental health parity law requires large group health plans to offer the same level of benefits and coverage for mental health and substance abuse disorders as are provided for general medical and surgical treatments.
In 2010, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued interim rules for implementation of the law. But critics contend that ambiguities in the regulations have made it difficult to enforce access to quality care for mental health and substance abuse patients.
Referring to Friday’s scheduled release of the final rules, Blumenthal said: “I am told that issuance of final rules is imminent, five years after the act was passed, four years after the statutory deadline — but the costs have been tremendous. In mental health, uncertainty kills.”
Added Kennedy: “Hopefully. tomorrow the administration will draw some pretty bright lines outlawing discrimination – not only for Cathy Morelli’s daughter, not only for people who are average Americans who suffer from substance abuse disorder like I do, or mental illness like I do, but most importantly for our nation’s heroes, our veterans.”
Kennedy’s father, the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., was a leading backer of the mental health parity law.
“I can tell you the voice and spirit of you father is very much with us on this issue and so many others in this hearing room, in the halls of the Senate, on the floor,” Blumenthal told Patrick Kennedy. “I continue to hear his voice, and I think that his warrior fighting spirit for justice is one of the…reasons that I and so many others feel so strongly about this issue.”