Arlington, VA - On the eve of a news conference with former First Lady Rosalyn Carter at the U.S. Capitol (Nov. 29 at 11AM), the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI)) says that the fate of legislation strengthening health insurance parity for mental illnesses lies in the hands of only a few key leaders in the House of Representatives.
"It will be unconscionable if House leaders kill this bill," said Richard. C. Birkel, Ph.D., executive director of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI). "The issue is not just about health care. It's about the kind of stigma and discrimination that sometimes leads to the deaths of innocent people."
The U.S. Senate has passed S.543 as an amendment to the Labor-HHS appropriations bill, which is now in conference. Introduced by Senators Pete Domenici (R-NM) and Paul Wellstone (D-MN), two-thirds of the full Senate has co-sponsored the measure. But some House leaders want to drop the measure, preferring instead to pass an extension of a 1996 law which, according to a U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) report, most insurance plans have evaded.
The 1996 law expired October 1, 2001.
"House leaders potentially are setting up other House members for a mistake that will back-fire on millions of Americans," Birkel said. "I am not sure they realize the full implications of what they are doing, especially because Members of Congress and other federal workers already have health insurance with stronger parity. They and their families already are covered."
Birkel noted that President George W. Bush has committed to ending discrimination against people with disabilities. In 1997, Bush signed into law a Texas parity bill. In her memoirs, former First Lady Barbara Bush also described her experience with depression and encouraged people in need to seek treatment.
NAMI noted that the U.S. Surgeon General has warned that almost all suicides are the result of mental illness, constituting the third-leading cause of death for people 15 to 24. Yet fewer than 20 percent of children and teenagers with mental illnesses get the treatment they need.
Since September 11th, insurance coverage for mental illness has become even more urgent a concern, with 70 percent of Americans experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder. At a Senate hearing, experts testified that children especially are at risk of developing problems well into the future.
"Killing this bill would be the moral equivalent of shooting our wounded," Birkel declared. "Americans don't leave their most vulnerable members behind. No procedural rationale or inflated cost estimate will be able to excuse it. Congress should not adjourn without insisting on the Senate provisions."
NAMI listed the key House leaders on the issue as Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL), Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-TX), Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-TX), Billy Tauzin (R-LA), Bill Thomas (R-CA), John Boehner (R-Ohio), Ralph Regula (R-OH), Bill Young (R-FL), Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-MO), Majority Whip David Bonior (D-MI), Charles Rangel (D-NY), John Dingell (D-NY), George Miller (D-CA), and David Obey (D-WI).
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