Mental illness and addiction don’t discriminate, but insurance policies do

For my father, the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D), the long fight to improve the care of people with mental illness began when he witnessed the terrible conditions in psychiatric institutions where his own brother, my uncle, was hospitalized in the 1950s. These conditions, and the eventual catastrophic financial toll endured by my grandparents, inspired my father to do everything he could to make things right for those in similar circumstances.

He was a champion of many people who had lost loved ones to the ravages of mental illness and addiction, families like Kitty Westin and Al and Mary Kluesner of Minnesota, and beloved by those who themselves suffered. My father knew what this could do to families: crushing debt, pain, suffering, even death. He fought hard to end the insurance discrimination against those with these illnesses so they could get the care they need and deserve. I continue this fight in honor of my father, but also because I have seen what it can do to families and I know it is the right thing to do.

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The Moyers family is no different. I am in long-term recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction because I was never denied access to the treatment I needed and deserved. I first went to treatment in 1989, after a 15-year battle against alcohol and crack cocaine. And then I was in and out of treatment three more times over five years. I was fortunate: I had family resources, a savings account and a health insurance plan through my employer to cover most of the cost of all of those treatments. Today, I am clean and sober for 13 years, because I finally took personal responsibility for managing my chronic illness by using the tools of recovery I was given in rehab.

But for most Americans treatment is the exception rather than the rule. Too often, there is a severe lack of private resources and public dollars for people who struggle with depression, an eating disorder, schizophrenia, or addiction to alcohol or other drugs. Ironically, even for working families who pay premiums for private insurance, coverage is restricted or non-existent. The result: They fall into the already frayed safety net of public programs, leaving even fewer resources for everyone else.

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Now Congress is poised to finally bridge the gap between what people need and what they get. The Paul Wellstone Mental Health and Addiction Equity Act of 2007 (H.R. 1424) would expand access to treatment by ending practices like higher co-pays and deductibles, restrictive day and visit limits and lower and annual lifetime caps on people seeking mental illness and addiction treatment and recovery services. Nearly 60 percent of all House members support the bill, named after the late senator who championed similar legislation before he died in a plane crash in 2002.

Although the Senate has already passed its version of the “parity” legislation, it falls short; the public would not even receive the same benefits as members of Congress do under the federal employees’ health benefits program. The hard work of addressing the disparities in the two versions will begin once the House takes a vote, and based on what both of us hear across the country, the public is desperate for the strongest possible bill to reach the White House.

We laud the sponsors of the House bill, Reps. Jim Ramstad (R-Minn.) and Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) for holding field hearings cross the country this spring, where they heard the horror stories of individuals and families who were denied coverage, even though they had health insurance. We also thank them for speaking out about their own recoveries from addiction, the care they received, and the care they and we believe every other American deserves.

The Paul Wellstone Mental Health and Addiction Equity Act will make it possible for hundreds of thousands of people to get the help they need, restoring the lives of families and communities, making the workplace safer, and saving billions of taxpayer dollars. As our stories prove, mental illness and addiction don’t discriminate. And neither should recovery.

William C. Moyers is the author of Broken: My Story of Addiction and Redemption and a member of the Faces & Voices of Recovery board of directors. David Wellstone is the co-founder of Wellstone Action.