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October 21, 2002

Congress Adjourns for Election Campaign Season Without Acting on Mental Illness Insurance Parity Bill or Funding for Research and Services Programs; Post-Election "Lame Duck" Session Expected.

With only two weeks remaining before Election Day, both the House and Senate have adjourned leaving a large volume of work unfinished, including many popular measures that have achieved broad bipartisan support. The 107th Congress is already being remembered as one of the most unproductive in recent decades, closely divided between the two parties and mired in partisan bickering. Prominent among the bills that Congress failed to act on this year is legislation to require health plans to cover treatment for mental illness on the same terms and conditions as all other illness - mental illness parity.

In addition to failing to act on parity and several other popular health-related legislation, Congress also failed to pass all but 2 of the 13 bills funding the operations of the federal government - including spending for mental illness research and services and housing and veterans programs. Instead, Congress adjourned after keeping the federal government operating at current levels through a "continuing resolution" through November 22. The House and Senate are expected to convene a post-election "lame duck" session (most likely the week of November 18) in an attempt to complete action on the remaining spending bills (known as appropriations).

Mental Illness Parity Bill Still Alive

During this "lame duck" session, there are likely to be opportunities for members of Congress to press for action on a range of legislative priorities that were not acted on this year. Parity is part of a long list of bills that was left unresolved, despite broad bipartisan support in Congress and support from President Bush. In many cases, time simply ran out in the current session and agreement could not be reached. In addition, the focus on Iraq and the war on terrorism diverted the attention of both the President and congressional leaders, crowding out other priorities. Few bills in this Congress can match the record of accomplishment of the mental illness parity measure (S 543 and HR 4066):

  • vocal support from the President,
  • 67 Senate cosponsors (over two-thirds of the Senate), and
  • 242 House cosponsors (over half the House).

Despite this, there are still pockets of important opposition to parity (mainly from employer and insurance groups) that must be overcome if the bill is to move forward during the coming "lame duck" session.

ACTION REQUESTED

NAMI advocates are strongly encouraged to contact their members of Congress and urge them to support passage of mental illness parity during the post-election "lame-duck" session. In the two weeks leading up to the election, all members of Congress will be out in their states and districts campaigning for re-election. NAMI advocates are urged to seek out these elected officials at campaign events, shopping center parking lots, radio call-in shows, candidate forums and political rallies and press them to support passage of parity in 2002. It is especially important that House members be urged to directly contact Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-IL) in support of action on parity during the "lame duck" session. Please remind members of Congress that:

  • untreated mental illness costs American businesses, government and families at least $113 billion annually in lost productivity and social costs,
  • mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and severe anxiety disorders are real illnesses,
  • treatment for mental illness works and recovery is possible (treatment efficacy rates for the most severe mental illnesses exceed those for heart disease and diabetes),
  • there is simply no scientific or medical justification for insurance coverage of mental illness treatment to be on different terms and conditions than other diseases,
  • discriminatory insurance coverage of mental illness bankrupts families and places a tremendous burden on taxpayers through suicide, homelessness and inappropriate "criminalization" of people with mental illness, and
  • 34 states have enacted parity laws similar to HR 4066/S 543, but even these laws offer no protection for workers and their families that receive coverage through self-insured ERISA plans.

Spending Bills Left Unresolved

As noted above, Congress adjourned before resolving all appropriations bills for FY 2003 (which actually began on October 1, 2002). Included in the unfinished bills is the Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations bill (HR 5320/S 2766) that includes funding for the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the Center for Mental Health Services (CMHS). Important increases for both of these agencies are included in the unfinished Labor-HHS-Education spending bill. Among these is a 7.8% increase for mental illness research at NIMH (raising FY 2003 funding to $1.359 billion). For CMHS (part of the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration), the Senate bill includes a $7 million increase for the PATH program (services for homeless individuals with mental illness) and level funding for the Mental Health Block Grant ($433 million). Greater details on the pending Labor-HHS spending bill is available at NAMI E-News (July 23, 2002).

Funding for housing and veterans programs are part of a separate funding bill known as the VA-HUD Appropriations bill (HR 5605/S 2797) for which Congress has not completed action. It includes a $2.56 billion increase for veterans' medical care (including treatment and supportive services for veterans with mental illness). Both the House and Senate VA-HUD bills also contain important housing programs at HUD including the McKinney-Vento Homeless programs, Section 811 supportive housing and the Section 8 rental voucher program. This includes funding to renew all expiring rent subsidies under the Shelter Plus Care program (permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless individuals with mental illness and co-occurring substance abuse disorders) and the Section 811 program (both tenant-based and project-based subsidies). More information on details of the FY 2003 VA-HUD Appropriations bill can be found at NAMI E-News (July 30, 2002).

ACTION REQUESTED

If congressional leaders and the Bush Administration are unable to reach agreement on these pending spending bills, they may be forced into passing a long-term "continuing resolution" for FY 2003 - possibly through March 2003. Such a long-term funding bill would delay most, if not all, spending increases for months, endangering critical priorities such as

  • development of new mental illness research grants, and
  • renewal of key local services programs, (e.g., CMHS community action grants that many NAMI affiliates are engaged in).

NAMI advocates are therefore urged to contact members of Congress to support quick action in a "lame duck" session on both the Labor-HHS and VA-HUD Appropriations bills. Important increases for mental illness research, treatment and services programs should not jeopardized because of partisan gridlock.

All members of Congress can be reached by calling the Capitol Switchboard toll free at 1-800-839-5276 or at 202-224-3121 or online.


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