Mental Illness, Addiction Have to Be Treated, Too

Posted March 9, 2008 at 10:59pm

On July 31, 1981, I woke up in a jail cell in Sioux Falls, S.D., under arrest as the result of my last alcoholic blackout.

I’m alive and sober today only because of the access I had to treatment, as well as the grace of God and support of many recovering people the past 26 years. I’m living proof that treatment works and recovery is real.

But far too many people don’t have access to treatment. It’s a

national disgrace that 270,000 Americans were denied addiction treatment last year. It’s a national tragedy that 150,000 of our fellow Americans died last year from chemical addiction and 30,000 Americans committed suicide from depression. And it’s a national crisis that untreated addiction and mental illness cost our economy more than $550 billion last year.

And think of the costs that can’t be measured in dollars and cents: human suffering, broken families, shattered dreams, ruined careers and destroyed lives.

The statistics are so staggering that we sometimes forget there is a tragic human story behind every figure.

In my home state of Minnesota, Anna Westin was a young woman who suffered from anorexia for several years. Her parents’ insurance company refused to cover the inpatient treatment she desperately needed. Distraught at being a financial burden on her parents, Anna took her own life at age 21. Another young person from Minnesota, suffering from alcoholism and depression, also was denied treatment. Four days later, he committed suicide.

Sadly, these tragic stories are not the exception. Many health plans refuse to treat diseases of the brain — mental illness and addiction — the same as other physical diseases.

In other words, insurance companies are allowed to discriminate against people with mental illness and addiction by imposing higher co-payments and deductibles, limited treatment stays and other barriers to treatment that don’t exist for other diseases.

This is not just another public policy issue — it’s a matter of life or death for 54 million Americans with mental illness and 22 million with chemical addiction.

That’s why I’ve worked for more than a decade to pass legislation to knock down the discriminatory barriers to treatment and recovery.

With my colleagues Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) in the House and Sens. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) in the Senate, I have sponsored legislation the past 10 years to provide treatment equity for people with mental illness and addiction.

It is patently unfair to have discriminatory barriers that don’t exist for other diseases.

But treatment parity is not only the right thing to do, it’s also the cost-effective thing to do.

As study after study has shown, treatment parity does not cause a significant increase in insurance premiums. In fact, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the average premium increase due to full treatment parity will not be more than one-fifth of 1 percent. In other words, for the price of a cheap cup of coffee per month, we could treat millions of Americans in health plans.

We have growing support, not only in Congress, but also from health plans and CEOs who understand the cost-effectiveness of treatment equity. At the 14 field hearings Patrick Kennedy and I held on this legislation, no fewer than seven major health plans testified in support, along with a number of CEOs from small, medium and large businesses across the country that have already adopted parity in treating mental illness and chemical addiction.

They understand that every dollar spent on treatment saves up to $12 in health care and criminal justice costs alone. That does not even take into account savings in social services, lost productivity, absenteeism and injuries in the workplace.

They told of increased productivity, reduced absenteeism and fewer accidents in the workplace — all as a result of treating employees with addiction and mental illness the same as employees with physical illnesses.

It’s hard to believe the AMA classified chemical addiction as a disease in 1956. Now, more than 50 years later, it’s long overdue for Congress to treat mental illness and addiction as the progressive and fatal diseases they are.

It’s time to end the discrimination against people with mental illness and addiction.

It’s time for Congress to deal with our nation’s No. 1 public health problem.

It’s time to pass treatment parity legislation because millions of Americans can’t afford to wait.

Rep. Jim Ramstad (R-Minn.) is a member of the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Health.