What Does Every Presidential Candidate Except John McCain Know About Mental Illness?

Perhaps it's That Treatment Works if You Can Get it

Jan 28 2000

Arlington, VA - The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill expressed disappointment and concern over news from New Hampshire that Senator John McCain (R-AZ) apparently stands alone among presidential candidates in opposing a federal mandate that health insurance plans provide the same coverage for brain disorders as they provide for other disorders.

On January 25th, the Manchester Union Leader published a "Primary Primer" summarizing responses from both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates to questions on various issues. In response to the question "Should health insurance plans cover mental illness to the same extent they do physical illness?" the Union Leader reported: "All the candidates with the exception of John McCain favor the idea of insurance plans covering mental illness."

"To some degree, we are not surprised," said NAMI executive director Laurie Flynn. "Senator McCain voted against the current federal law in 1996. We have been hoping, however, that in light of the growing evidence that serious mental illnesses are treatable disorders of the brain, he might keep an open mind and reconsider his position carefully."

Last year, the number of states with insurance parity laws for mental illness expanded from 19 to 28, including California, the nation's largest state. By executive order, President Clinton also extended insurance parity to nine million federal workers and convened the nation's first White House Conference on Mental Health. Last month, the U.S. Surgeon General issued the first Report on Mental Health, emphasizing the need to overcome stigma and provide treatment for serious mental illnesses.

"Mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder (manic depression) are severe, biological brain disorders," Flynn noted. "In essence, that means they are physical illnesses. They are not merely mental health problems from living daily life. I wonder whether Senator McCain has read the Surgeon General's report and is aware of the distinction, and whether he has looked closely at the pattern of recent state legislation. The fundamental issue is unfair discrimination, and the debate today is less about cost than scope of coverage."

Bipartisan parity legislation to strengthen federal law currently is pending in Congress, introduced by Senators Pete Domenci (R-NM) and Paul Wellstone (D-MN). In 1997, Governor George W. Bush signed a parity bill into law in Texas. Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), who this week dropped out of the presidential race and endorsed Bush, voted for the current federal law in 1996.

In New Hampshire, NAMI has mounted an aggressive voter registration and education campaign, which will be expanding to other states. "We'll have to wait to see what impact this latest news will have on Tuesday's primary results," Flynn said. "The one sure thing that every political candidate can bet on is that people with mental illnesses, their families and friends will be voting in 2000, and that insurance parity will be one of our key concerns."