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Two-day forum will urge action to bolster mental health support

Oct. 22, 2013 - 04:22PM   |  
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The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Parity Act was signed five years ago, but patients with mental illness — including many veterans — aren’t getting needed care because of delays implementing the law, say advocates including former congressman and mental health patient Patrick Kennedy.

Marking the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s signing of the Community Mental Health Act, his nephew Patrick will host a forum Wednesday and Thursday in Boston to push for equality in mental health care.

Among the speakers will be Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America Director Paul Rieckhoff, who says the nationwide shortage of mental health providers particularly affects troops and veterans.

“The folks who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan have mental health injuries — and they are injuries just like if you got shot in the arm. They need to be treated with the same urgency and care and response as if they had a bullet wound,” Rieckhoff said.

Nearly 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, according to a 2008 Rand Corp. study, and 280,000 have traumatic brain injury, a condition often accompanied by mental health conditions.

With 72 percent of these veterans likely to seek care from civilian providers and not the Veterans Affairs Department, the need exists to educate providers on the unique needs of troops and ensure that providers are required to treat them, both Kennedy and Rieckhoff said in a conference call with reporters Oct. 17.

“The biggest prize that will help our nation’s veterans and all Americans is making sure we treat the brain like any other organ in the body,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy said several laws have sought to ensure that mental health treatment is considered as urgent a need as physical care by insurers and physicians, but inequity and discrimination still exist in coverage and reimbursements.

Kennedy said the 2008 Parity Act still lacks final legislative rules on implementation. The rules would define the scope of required services and define discriminatory practices such as denials in care and treatment limitation criteria.

“The silence is deafening. We need to refocus our efforts on the work left to be done, to realize President Kennedy’s vision to treat people who have brain illnesses with equality and dignity,” he said.

But the issue goes beyond the need for additional legislation, the advocates said.

Rieckhoff’s organization has pressed for a presidential “call to action” to urge more people to go into the mental health field and push for broader professional education.

And Kennedy is hoping to appeal to a national sense of concern for those who are ill, including veterans, regardless of the nature of their diseases.

“Because of the stigma of these illnesses, people don’t complain, they don’t petition. That’s the insidious challenge we have,” Kennedy said. “If we can’t appeal to people’s sense of justice to help our returning heroes, it’s hard to think we can ever rectify these other historic injustices to the population who is suffering twice, from medical illness of the brain and not being able to access the services they need to get better.”

Scheduled to appear at the Kennedy Forum are Chelsea Clinton, Chris Matthews and Chicago Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall as well as mental health advocates, including former Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith and former Minnesota Rep. Jim Ramstad, who co-sponsored the Mental Health Parity Act.

Kennedy has been very public about his struggles with bipolar disorder, acknowledging in 2006 that he suffered the disorder as well as an alcohol addiction.

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