Wouldn’t it be nice if you could visit your psychiatrist, psychologist or counselor and hand over a mere $10 or $20, the same co-pay as a checkup with your internist? Like many New Yorkers, I consider individual therapy as much a part of life as riding the subway. I’d no sooner give up sessions with my addiction doctor — the man I credit with helping me make my life-saving decision to get sober and enter a Twelve Step program—than I would give up bagels, the New York Post or the chance to see a Yankees game. Even during financially challenging times, I’ve never given up my precious twice-monthly appointments.
Therapy is an important component in sustained recovery. It would be great if insurance covered these visits. When you think about it, isn’t mental health part of physical health? The brain is a physical organ that requires check-ups just like other parts of our body. Thankfully, many medical professionals know that addiction is like other manageable but incurable chronic conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, HIV and some cancers. Shouldn’t it be covered the same way by insurance companies? Why hasn’t this happened? Well, the short answer is because we, the recovery community, have not demanded it.
In 2001, then-Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone issued a call to action for people in recovery to share their experiences, primarily because far too many Americans with alcohol and drug problems, as well as mental illness, had experienced insurance discrimination and were refused lifesaving treatments.
There were too many loopholes left by the 1996 Mental Health Parity Act (MHPA), which is why new legislation was proposed. Twelve years later, in 2008, after a hard-fought battle, the law passed, requiring that benefits coverage for mental health as well as substance use benefits must be at least equal to that coverage provided for physical health benefits. The law took effect Jan. 1, 2010, but federal regulations to actually implement the law have not been finalized.
Advocates are calling for the Obama Administration to issue a final rule, arguing that parity is not just the right and moral thing to do, it is the fiscally responsible thing to do as well. Untreated addiction costs this country nearly half a trillion dollars a year. Think of lost wages, lost productivity, incarceration, institutionalization, hospitalization, not to mention the myriad health crises: liver failure, cancer of the esophagus, heart disease and Wet Brain, to name a few.
By definition, parity means equality, something for which Americans have fought and died. Not so long ago, minorities weren’t considered for high-level jobs. People in wheelchairs couldn’t access public bathrooms. Gays and lesbians faced horrifying discrimination. It took a grassroots effort to demand that these inequalities be changed and it will take the same kind of effort to bring insurance equality to the attention of the lawmakers we employ.
For more on the status of the Parity Law and what Laurie Dhue and other recovery advocates say must be done to move it forward, check out the Nov/Dec issue of Renew magazine.
Image: Laurie Dhue and former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy at the 2012 DNC Recovery Caucus in Charlotte, N.C.