July 27, 2015

By Dania Douglas

anniversary-photo-(1).jpgDisability rights and health policy advocates from across the country will gather in the nation’s capital this week to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Medicare and Medicaid and the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.  These two laws have been instrumental to the well-being of people living with mental illness. 

On July 30, 1965 President Johnson signed the Social Security Amendments that established Medicare for adults over age 65 and Medicaid for low income Americans.  During the signing, Johnson remarked, “No longer will older Americans be denied the miracle of modern medicine… and across the country those, alone in suffering… will now hear the sound of some approaching footsteps coming to help. There are those fearing the terrible darkness of despairing poverty–despite their long years of labor and expectation–who will now look up to see the light of hope and realization.”

Medicare and Medicaid began as programs offering basic health coverage to low-income Americans and senior citizens, but they have grown to offer comprehensive health coverage and vital services to millions of Americans, including people living with mental illness.  In fact, Medicaid is now the single largest payer for mental health services in the United States. 

July 26, 2015 marks the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a civil rights victory that has transformed the lives of millions of Americans living with disabilities.  Designed with the grand vision of eliminating discrimination against individuals with disabilities, the law has fulfilled the promise of creating new pathways to education, employment and public services. 

People living with mental illness and their families know all too well that discrimination and stigma are widespread in this country.  They also know that many people go without the health coverage and care they need to achieve recovery.  Yet the anniversaries of these two laws give us a chance to step back and appreciate how far our country has come over the past half-century.

Mary Giliberti and other civil rights attorneys litigated Americans with Disabilities Act cases, fighting to end discrimination in schools, in the workplace, and in public settings against people with mental illness.  The fight continues as we at NAMI advocate tirelessly advocate for improved community-mental health services, mental health parity, access to appropriate and affordable mental health care; policies that help build better lives for all who live with mental illnesses. 

As a young disability rights attorney myself, I have grown up benefitting from the protections of all of these laws.  As a policy advocate, I am also painfully aware of how much work we have ahead of us to truly end discrimination and to ensure that all people with mental illness get the health care and services they need.  Yet this week we should pause to reflect, to look at how far we have come and to celebrate.  

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