The efforts of President Barack Obama to improve mental health care after the Newtown, Conn., school shooting have not impressed local mental health care leaders, and they are not expecting much to come from the National Conference on Mental Health, which was Monday at the White House.
In opening the conference, the president called for a more robust national discussion on mental illness, saying the time had come to bring the issue “out of the shadows.”
“The main goal of this conference is not to start a conversation — so many of you have spent decades waging a long and lonely battle to be heard,” Obama said. “Instead, it’s about elevating that conversation to a national level.”
However, Pam Gionfriddo, chief executive officer of the Mental Health Association of Palm Beach County, said she has not “seen anything happening at the federal level” and that “there appears to be some kind of paralysis going on there.”
“I sure believe that if he puts his mind to it — and his wife is interested — we can at least keep the conversation going,” Gionfriddo said. “It’s going to take more than talking.”
Liz Downey, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Palm Beach County, said she, too, has seen little progress at the state and national level since mental health became a hot-button issue after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December.
“You can only hope it will trickle down, and that hasn’t happened so far,” Downey said.
Among the advocates, lawmakers and government officials in the audience at the White House on Monday, Obama singled out former Democratic Rep. Patrick Kennedy, for his inspiring battle with addiction and bipolar disorder and his relentless efforts to pass a mental health parity law, which requires insurance companies to provide the same coverage for mental illnesses that they do for other physical disorders or diseases. That means insurance companies no longer could have separate deductibles for mental health care, higher co-pays for mental health prescription drugs and limits on treatment.
However, while praising Kennedy, son of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, the president did not mention that his administration still has not proposed draft rules for implementing Kennedy’s 4½-year-old parity law. Without those rules, the law has no teeth and cannot be implemented or enforced. Kennedy and other advocates were encouraged in January when the president signed 23 executive orders in response to the Sandy Hook shooting. In one, the president said he intended to introduce draft rules for the parity law in February. That did not happen.
On Monday, during a question-and-answer session after the president’s comments, Kennedy stood and offered a passionate plea to officials, including Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, urging them to issue rules for implementing and enforcing mental health insurance parity.
“Insurance companies often have the final say on whether services are covered or not,” Kennedy said. “I have found that insurance companies will make us all do the runaround unless they know someone is looking at them.”
Sebelius said the administration is “working hard and committed to finishing the parity act this year.”
Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton, did not attend the White House conference but has worked with Kennedy to get parity rules in place. Deutch praised the president’s initiative in hosting the conference but said the parity rules must be put into place to not only reduce stigma that has become systemic in the insurance industry but also to enable millions of Americans to receive treatment with no cost to the government.
“We’ve got to ensure that patients with mental issues are treated the same way in the eyes of the health insurance industry,” Deutch said. “The lack of rules is what is really impeding the reality of Americans getting the coverage they deserve.”
The conference included top administration officials, along with actors Bradley Cooper and Glenn Close. Cooper has been promoting mental health awareness since his portrayal of a man with bipolar disorder in the movie “Silver Linings Playbook.” Close’s family battles with mental illness. She has a sister with bipolar disorder and a nephew with schizo-affective disorder. Close has started a nonprofit that produces public service announcements to fight stigma and discrimination.
Vice President Joe Biden closed the conference, saying that the nation’s schoolteachers should be trained to recognize the types of mental illnesses that lead to deadly massacres.
“So many people could be saved if we recognized this,” Biden said. “It’s like cancer: The earlier you recognize it, the greater the possibility.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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Florida’s mental health crisis
In March, The Post investigated Florida’s mental health crisis, from children committed at school under the Baker Act to how gun background checks fail to catch people who are mentally ill.
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