On April 29, in a series of historic announcements, President Bush offered public support for passage of mental illness parity legislation in 2002 and unveiled a new White House Commission on improving access to effective mental health services. The President made these announcements during a speech at the University of New Mexico during an appearance with Senator Pete Domenici. Also in attendance representing NAMI was national board member Fred Sandoval of Santa Fe, New Mexico.
During his speech, the President noted that millions of Americans and their families live everyday with mental illness and that untreated mental illness is a great national problem. He also noted that the stigma associated with mental illness often discourages consumers from seeking care, despite the existence of new drugs and therapies that have vastly improved the chances for effective treatment and recovery. Untreated mental illness the President declared can too often lead to homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction or incarceration.
In declaring his support for parity, President Bush noted that even though advances have been made in the science of mental illness treatment, many health plans unfairly treat coverage for mental health benefits by imposing copayments, deductibles or limits on outpatient visits that are more restrictive than those placed on physical illness. The President has a history of supporting parity legislation. In 1997 as Governor of Texas, he signed legislation into law that required plans to provide fair treatment to patients with severe mental illnesses.
The President also pledged to work with Senator Domenici and other leaders in the House and Senate to reach an agreement on parity legislation that can pass Congress and be signed into law this year. The legislation must prevent plans from applying less generous treatment or financial limitations on mental health benefits than are imposed on medical or surgical benefits.
As NAMI members know first-hand, numerous federal, state and local government entities oversee mental health services through a diverse network of public and private providers and a complex and often underfunded public system. In the President's view, more efficient organization and coordination could assist these providers in ensuring effective treatment is received by those most in need.
To address this issue, President Bush is establishing the New Freedom Commission on Mental Health. The Commission will be composed of fifteen members, appointed by the President, and seven ex-officio members from executive branch agencies. Ohio Mental health Commissioner Michael Hogan was selected to Chair the Commission. It is expected that the remaining 14 members of the Commission will be named within the next two weeks.
The Executive Order signed by the President charges this Commission with the following tasks: identify the needs of consumers, the barriers to care, and investigate community-based care models that have success in coordinating and providing public mental health services. The Commission will have one year to recommend immediate improvements that can be implemented by all aspects of the public and private mental health system to improve coordination and quality of services with existing resources.More information on these important presidential announcements is available through the White House Website at www.whitehouse.gov. Read the full text of the President's speech.