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Statement of Richard C. Birkel, Ph.D. Executive Director, National Alliance for the Mentally Ill
Arlington, VA - Late Tuesday, December 18, a conference committee of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives voted to drop the mental health parity amendment from the Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill (H.R. 3061). Key House leaders remained opposed to the provision until the end.
Killing the amendment was more than a disappointment to individuals with mental illnesses and their families. It is an outrage-representing a conscious decision to protect unconscionable discrimination.
Mental illnesses are brain disorders. They are as much physical illnesses as heart disease, diabetes, or epilepsy. Congress should not be abandoning the millions of Americans who battle severe mental illnesses every year.
Two-thirds of all the members of the Senate co-sponsored the original mental health parity bill, S. 543. A majority of members of the House of Representatives were on record supporting the Senate amendment-asking the conference committee to support it.
A small group of House leaders instead chose to ignore the will of the majority. People cannot help but wonder whose interests they served. Certainly not those of American families. Certainly not those of children. And certainly not those of other Members of Congress who have wanted to do the right thing.
Since 1995, the House of Representatives has not held a single hearing on parity, in spite of the Senate's hearings, deliberations, and action. Some of the House leaders who have worked so hard to block the Senate parity amendment to H.R. 3061 are in fact the same leaders who have refused to hold hearings.
That is wrong. It is unfair. It is undemocratic. It is unconscionable.
Members of Congress already have health insurance providing parity for mental health benefits. So do other federal workers, including those who work at the White House. That is only right-but other Americans deserve the same protection.
Insurance discrimination kills. Ninety percent of all suicides are the result of mental illness. Congressional inaction means that some people will not get adequate treatment. Congressional inaction means some people will die.
The cost of parity is low. The benefits are significant. The risks that come from not providing coverage are much too high.
NAMI is grateful for the bipartisan efforts of all those Members of Congress who have fought hard for parity. Senators Pete Domenici (R-NM) and Paul Wellstone (D-NM) have been the lead sponsors, supported by Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA). In the House, Representative Marge Roukema (R-NJ) has been the lead sponsor. Representative Nancy Johnson (R-CT) worked valiantly to try to find a middle ground. Representative Patrick Kennedy (D-RI), who knows first-hand the challenges posed by major depression and other mental illnesses worked tirelessly in support.
In the closing hours, President Bush remained our hope. He signed the Texas parity law in 1997. He too knows the pain that can result from untreated mental illness. He has the power to turn House leaders and the White House staff around on the issue. But the President did not act, and we are greatly disappointed.
Our consolation comes in this promise: parity will not go away. If our leaders fail, we will hold them accountable-every time a family faces a crisis or is plunged into grief. Every time insurance discrimination kills, we will ask them again: whom do they really represent?
We will be back. And next time, the majority will win.