NAMI Praises Tennessee Legislature for Passing Parity Bill

Elected Officials Join Fast Growing Trend Among States To End Discrimination

Apr 27 1998

Arlington, VA - The Tennessee House and Senate rectified a great wrong on April 23 by unanimously passing HB 3177 which mandates that health insurance plans provide coverage for mental illnesses at the same level as physical illnesses. By sending the bill to Governor Sundquist's desk with unanimous approval, the legislature sends a strong message that discrimination will not be tolerated in Tennessee.

"We applaud the Tennessee legislature for joining the fast growing trend among states to end discrimination against people with mental illness," said Laurie Flynn, executive director of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI). "Should Republican Governor Don Sundquist sign this bill into law, Tennessee will become the third state this year to pass parity legislation and the 18th state overall to enact a parity bill. Across the nation, elected officials are validating in legislation what researchers have proven in science-mental illnesses are brain disorders and treatment works.

"We also congratulate NAMI Tennessee for its exemplary advocacy efforts," said Flynn. "For years, its members have worked tirelessly to see an end to unfair treatment. It is through their hard work, and the work of the bill's sponsors, that Tennessee now has legislative approval of one of the nation's most comprehensive parity bills."

An active campaign to educate elected officials throughout the state eventually won bipartisan support for HB 3177. Commenting on the bill, Republican sponsor, Representative Page Walley said, "I believe because of NAMI Tennessee's efforts, our entire state has taken a great leap forward in our understanding and fair treatment of those who struggle with mental illness. The days of viewing mental illness as a character defect are behind us. No longer will they be treated as second class citizens."

This parity bill is seen as an important first step in the fight against discrimination by mental health advocates. June Palmer, president of NAMI Tennessee, states, "This is a real victory for fairness for the one in five Tennessee families affected by mental illness, and a first major step in recognizing that mental illnesses are brain disorders and should be insured equitably. This is a good strong bill and one we can build on in the future." Democratic sponsor, Senator Robert Rochelle echoed these sentiments calling it, "...a significant move toward recognizing the need for adequate mental health care."

Years of persistent educating, lobbying, and coalition building established the foundation on which HB 3177 could be built. "It proves that grassroots efforts such as NAMI can be successful with prolonged effort. We have many to thank for this bill, particularly NAMI Tennessee and the committee that worked so hard and for so long. It only proves again that once legislators have the appropriate information, they can be expected to do the right thing," said Ray Sinor, NAMI Board member and former President of NAMI Tennessee.

Courageous state leaders throughout the nation and lawmakers on Capitol Hill know that parity is not only a matter of fairness, but that it also reduces taxpayer burden, as fewer people would need to access the welfare system to get coverage for biologically based brain disorders. "Not only are people with mental illness going to be the benefactors of this bill, but the general public will benefit as well, through lower costs and improved contributions to our society from those who will now receive fair treatment," said Sinor.

More states across the nation are recognizing the ongoing discrimination against people with mental illness and are increasingly passing parity legislation. Georgia's governor Zell Miller signed that state's parity bill on April 6 and South Dakota did the same on March 13. In total, 17 states have enacted laws that prohibit health insurance discrimination against people with mental illness: Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, and Vermont.

NAMI is the nation's largest grassroots organization solely dedicated to improving the lives of persons with severe mental illnesses, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder (manic-depressive illness), major depression, and anxiety disorders. NAMI has more than 172,000 individual members and 1,140 state and local affiliates in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and Canada. NAMI's efforts focus on support to persons with serious brain disorders and to their families; advocacy for nondiscriminatory and equitable federal and state policies; research into the causes, symptoms, and treatments for brain disorders; and education to eliminate the pervasive stigma toward severe mental illnesses.