By Mary Giliberti, J.D.
We’d like to think that Americans want to move forward, not back.
Unfortunately, Congress is moving backwards in the current debate over health care. The House of Representatives has passed a bill—the American Health Care Act (AHCA)—that is deeply flawed and will put lives in jeopardy.
The Senate is expected to unveil its own proposal soon, but it also has the potential to move the country backwards—hurting not just people with mental illness, but all of us. Now is the time to contact your Senators (even if you’ve contacted them before!) and tell them to say no to reckless proposals that threaten people’s lives.
Under the House’s AHCA bill, 23 million Americans will lose mental health coverage, including 14 million who will no longer be covered by Medicaid. This is far more than an abstract statistic. These are real people with real needs. Getting these individuals the right care can be the difference from living a life filled with friends and family and a life spent locked in solitary confinement.
NAMI is the nation’s largest grassroots organization fighting for people with mental illness—individuals and families who desperately need help. They call the NAMI HelpLine looking for hope. Right now, we’re hearing from many people filled with fear.
“I don’t want to be hospitalized again,” one man wrote us in an email. Another said that mental health services had enabled him to get and keep a job; he can’t understand why the country would want to reverse progress.
One woman said that without the right medications and support, she will likely have to go to a emergency room when she experiences psychosis and be hospitalized or end up living on the street. “Why incur more expenses in ERs when we could have cheaper, easier access to care?” she asked. Medicaid expansion—which 31 states and the District of Columbia have adopted—“has given me life, literally…Without coverage, I would not be a stable, participating member of society.”
In addition to cutting Medicaid, the House bill undermines essential mental health benefits under existing law. Instead of providing people with the help they need, the House bill would make mental health services optional. That is unjust. No one would dare propose that treatment for cancer, diabetes or heart disease be optional.
This health care debate is about America’s vision. It’s about America’s values. Going backwards means that problems in the mental health care system that exist today will get worse while hard-fought gains made in recent years will be lost.
NAMI is non-partisan because mental illness doesn’t discriminate. It can strike anyone at any time—Republicans and Democrats alike. The health care debate should also be non-partisan. And the goal should be building a health care system that offers treatment and support for those who need it most.
But that won’t happen under the legislation Congress is working on. Coverage will be cut. People will pay more. And costs will shift. As a society, we’ll end up paying more in other places. Take prisons: Every year, more than 2 million people with mental illness are locked into jails where half get no treatment. The cost of jailing one person is $31,000, compared to the cost of providing mental health services to a person in the community, which would about $10,000. It doesn’t take an economist to realize the absurdity of cutting mental health care only to have to pay a greater price elsewhere.
Two years ago, I toured the Cook County Jail in Chicago, one of the nation’s largest jails. Sheriff Tom Dart is one of the nation’s most compassionate reform leaders in law enforcement today and says that the jailing of people with mental illness is heartbreaking and an injustice. Further: It is a crisis that should shock the conscience of Americans. The same can be said for the health care debate.
Later this month, NAMI will hold our National Convention in Washington, D.C., including a “Hill Day” when NAMI members will charge forward on Capitol Hill to voice concerns directly to Senators and Representatives. Most NAMI members won’t be able to travel to Washington, but they can take part virtually right now.
Please let your Senators know that Americans need more mental health coverage, not less. Congress should improve mental health coverage, not make it worse. The Senate should say:
Cutting coverage will simply keep people from getting the treatment they need and push people with mental illness into emergency rooms, jails and the streets. That’s not progress. It’s an outrage.
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