Making the promise of mental health parity a reality
The Hill Opinion Editorial
By Donald Norcross
A young woman said, “I thank my stars every day that I’m standing here before you.” A mom said, “This disease has touched so many families, including mine.” A father said, “Our son was killed by fentanyl-laced heroine. Addicts need help.” And another mother said, “If drug addiction was treated like other physical diseases, my son might be alive today.”
These are direct quotes. They’re from people in South Jersey, and they are things I’ve heard over and over again throughout the past few years. The last, painfully honest, quote really hits on something I’ve been focused on – getting others to understand that addiction is a disease and that we must combat the stigma surrounding addiction. As vice-chair of the Bipartisan Addiction Task Force, one of the largest bipartisan groups in Congress, I will keep shining a light on the fact that addiction is a medical condition – not a moral or criminal issue.
Back in 2008, Congress rightly began requiring mental health parity – which means, under law, insurance plans must provide the same level of coverage for mental health and substance-use disorders that they provide for physical health conditions. However, we’ve hit a snag – the enforcement mechanism for the 2008 law is severely lacking. Insurance companies can get away with not following parity laws, even though lives are on the line. I recently proposed the Parity Enforcement Act to fix this. My bill would allow the Department of Labor to fully investigate and issue penalties against health insurers that knowingly break the law.
It’s a change that has a broad range of bipartisan and nonpartisan support. Last month, Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta testified before Congress expressing his support for this authority. And former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), the author of the 2008 bill and founder of The Kennedy Forum, endorsed the bill alongside more than 50 other mental health organizations. I was recently at an event with Patrick Kennedy where he said, “These are serious life or death issues and we must fight insurance companies not following the law and work to hold them accountable.”
He’s right that we must fight together and he’s right about the severity of the disease of addiction. More than 3,000 people died from overdoses in New Jersey last year –that’s a new record – and nationally we lost more Americans to the disease of addiction last year than we did in the entire Vietnam War.
Experts say we need more federal funding and resources to properly address the opioid crisis – and, just last week, the House approved providing more than $4 billion for opioid prevention and treatment activities and another $5.9 billion for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. That’s a positive step forward and I encourage the Senate and the president to agree to those increases. I also encourage my colleagues in Congress to keep working with their community partners.
Many of our recent government successes have occurred thanks to input from people on the ground – doctors, nurses, law enforcement officials and family members. For example, I heard from emergency room doctors at South Jersey’s Jefferson Hospital in 2017 that they were very concerned about "doctor shopping," since New Jersey and Pennsylvania were not sharing drug information. After my colleagues and I intervened, the two states changed their practices to help prevent people from deceptively filling prescriptions in both states. Additionally, I heard about the premise for the bipartisan Jobs Plus Recovery Act for the first time during a conversation with a South Jerseyan.
This act – which I introduced in the last session of Congress and is now the law of the land – is providing access to job training services during the recovery process to help stop the cycle of addiction and joblessness. Now, we’re investing when its needed most, and our economy will be stronger as a result.
It’s clear we need to address many different aspects of this crisis and implement a variety of tactics to help those suffering – whether it’s job training or educating prescribers, working with treatment centers or supporting our veterans. In February, I worked to ensure veterans suffering from the disease of addiction have proper access to child care services while they seek treatment. The people who sacrificed for our country should receive the best treatment and services available, no matter if the disease they come home with is a physical or mental condition.
It, again, comes back to parity, to the stigma, to the fact that addiction is a disease. If there was true, fully-enforced parity, the mother who said her son would be alive if addiction was treated like other physical diseases may not have had to share her tragic story. So for all the sons and daughters, neighbors and friends who are struggling, let’s work together to make the promise of parity a reality.