THE BLOG
08/22/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In Reforming Our Health Care System, We'd Be Crazy to Ignore the Mind

Last year, a bill I introduced called the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act became law. On that day, a monumental victory was achieved for the over 25% of Americans who no longer have to face discrimination from their insurers when it comes to their mental health care. That day was a victory for Americans everywhere, as a civil rights gap was closed in this country, and a long standing form of discrimination was ended. I am proud to say that this victory was expounded upon in the health care reform bill currently before the House of Representatives. It is clear that the 113 million Americans with mental illnesses whose coverage was improved by mental health parity were heard loud and clear with the passage of mental health parity -- discrimination will no longer be tolerated, and our minds can no longer be treated as separate from our bodies.

The health care reform proposal currently being debated in the House of Representatives expands the mental health parity protections to the newly created Exchange plans, regardless of plan size. Further, the House bill mandates that mental health and substance use disorder benefits be included in the essential benefits package of all qualified health plans. In a country where less than a third of people with mental illnesses get the care they need, and individuals with serious mental illness have a life expectancy of 25 years less than the general population, this victory is one which cannot go understated. It is because of the precedent set by the mental health parity law, fortifying the civil rights of those with mental illnesses, that lead to this clear recognition by the bill that optimal health cannot be achieved without the inclusion of mental health and substance-use disorder services. I am pleased to have worked with House leadership and the Committees to have accomplished this victory.

I am also proud to have successfully worked on an amendment with my colleagues to ensure that screening for mental health and substance-use disorders are covered as a preventative service under this bill. Addiction, just like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease, is a preventable and treatable chronic disease. Utilizing screening as a preventative, pro-active tool of medicine to detect mental illness and drug and alcohol use helps identify at-risk populations so we can intervene early and thereby significantly reduce the incidence of these diseases among Americans. Screening is an effective way to alleviate needless suffering while saving health care dollars. It is true representation of the transition from the current "sick-care" system to one which is patient-centered, collaborative, and focused on prevention and cost-savings.

These successes cannot be over emphasized, yet I will continue to work with my colleagues to ensure that we make even further strides. I am currently advocating for the inclusion of education and training on mental health and substance-use disorders for all health care providers, so they are better equipped to provide whole-body care to all Americans. Given the shortage of pediatric and adolescent mental health providers in our country, I am also working to ensure that the loan repayment and grants portions of my Child Health Care Crisis Relief Act that will help enhance this crucial component of our nation's health care workforce are included in the House bill, as they were in the Senate. 

I will continue to work with my colleagues to institute these critical changes to our nation's health care system, fighting to ensure that all Americans receive the care they need. In a nation where life and the pursuit of happiness are the central tenants of our very foundation, our citizens deserve nothing less.