Ted Kennedy leaves a remarkable legacy of advocacy. From his earliest days in the United States Senate, he showed a sensitivity toward the plight of Americans often marginalized by the political machine. These Americans include the millions suffering from a major mental illness.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) estimates that one in seventeen adult Americans experience a major mental illness like bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and schizophrenia. A study recently released by the National Institute of Mental Health reveals that mental illness costs the nation $193 million in unearned income per year.
It is undeniable that mental health care is an issue that should concern legislators, yet the needs of mental health consumers are often ignored. The American mental health care system continues to fail. This year, NAMI gave the nation a grade of D for its treatment of mental health concerns.
Kennedy was one of several legislators who did not ignore the crisis. He was familiar with the issue of mental health care: his older sister Rosemary underwent a lobotomy in 1941. The operation left her incapacitated. His son Patrick, Jr., who serves the 1st Congressional District of Rhode Island, has been public about his struggle with bipolar disorder and substance abuse.
It is no surprise, then, that Kennedy extended his record of advocacy to the issue of mental health care reform. He became a key sponsor of the Mental Health Parity Act of 2007. The act, which requires insurance companies to provide equal coverage for mental health care, began life in 1996 as an amendment to a larger health bill.
Originally sponsored by Senators Pete Domenici (R-NM) and Paul Wellstone (D-MN), the act passed the Senate but was cut by the House. Kennedy became a key sponsor of the act and reintroduced it in 2007. This time, it passed both the Senate and the House and was signed into law by President George W. Bush on October 3rd, 2007.
Kennedy's formidable skill as a statesman was instrumental to the passage of an act that he described as "a major breakthrough for those with mental health needs." Although the mental health care system continues to require reform, mental health parity represents a significant improvement. As the health care debate rages on, Kennedy's bipartisan efforts on behalf of sick Americans should be remembered, indeed imitated, by his colleagues.