Patrick Kennedy promotes mental health care here


Patrick Kennedy told Econ Club members that all Americans need better options for mental health care. Photo by Johnny Quirin

Patrick Kennedy, son of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, made an impassioned speech in Grand Rapids for better support of mental health care for all Americans, but to some business minds, his most persuasive line may have been uttered after his speech at the Grand Rapids Economic Club.

Fortune 100 companies believe in supporting mental health care, he said at a press conference following his address, because they all include insurance for it in their employee benefits packages.

“Why?” he asked. “Because that’s good for the bottom line. If business recognizes mental health is worth investing in — if the Green Berets believe in investing in it — why not the rest of us?”

Kennedy, 45, is a full-time advocate for improved mental health treatment in America as a result of his own mental health problems. At age 21, he was elected to the Rhode Island Legislature — “not because my name is Kennedy,” he joked — and then to the U.S. House at age 27. He has suffered from depression, drug and alcohol addictions over the years, one of his low points being in 2006 when he crashed his car near the Capitol while under the influence.

He served 16 years in the House but announced in 2010 he would not run again. As a former congressman, he is mainly known as co-author, with Rep. Jim Ramstad, and lead sponsor of the Mental Health Parity & Addiction Equity Act of 2008. The law pertains to group health insurance plans (those with more than 50 insured employees): Those that cover mental health and substance use disorders must cover them at the same levels as medical and surgical benefits and be no more restrictive.

Kennedy said there is a stigma attached to mental and substance abuse disorders that causes many people to ignore them, both in themselves and in others, resulting in many cases never being treated. He described mental health problems as the “invisible” disease in the body, emphasizing that the brain is part of the body.

“If cancer was treated the same, we’d wait until it was Stage 4 before we did anything about it,” said Kennedy. “We wait until it’s a crisis before we treat it.”

He told the Econ Club audience there was little support for the mental health parity bill, especially by Bible Belt legislators, some of whom told him their constituents viewed addictions and mental illnesses as character flaws, not disease.

However, Sen. Chris Dodd added it to the legislative package that created the Troubled Asset Relief Program, an emergency loan program for failing financial institutions in 2008. Dodd was temporary chair of the Senate health committee at the time, since the long-time committee chair — Ted Kennedy — had been disabled by brain cancer.

The mental parity act only passed “because of an economic crisis,” said Kennedy.

An average of 18 American military veterans commit suicide each day, said Kennedy, because they are not getting treatment for post traumatic stress disorder or brain damage stemming from their combat service in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As a young congressman in the 1990s, Kennedy was invited to the rededication of the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, where a high-ranking officer told him about the attention Green Beret candidates in training received regarding their mental health. Kennedy said he thought he was being snowed, but the Green Beret officer explained that maintenance of peak mental health was essential in the Special Forces because “we look at it as a force multiplier.”

Kennedy told the Business Journal the most successful corporations want to help maintain the good mental health of their employees “because business wants brain capital — ideas, intellectual property, employees who can be productive in this global business environment.”

Employees who are distracted by personal and family issues can be less effective, said David Gasp, director of benefits and health services at Steelcase. “So we support our employees and their families” with plans and programs that include an assistance program fully paid for by the company, which provides counseling and referral services.

He added that Steelcase, which now has about 2,500 employees in the Grand Rapids region, recently held a mental health informational session for interested employees. The featured speaker was Dr. John Greden, executive director of the Depression Center at the University of Michigan, and “the room was full,” he said.

Kennedy noted that even in manufacturing, the sophisticated equipment and processes now in use demand mental acuity never previously required on the factory floor. And it is now understood that addictions and mental problems “are the biggest cause for absenteeism and ‘presenteeism,’ which is when you show up for work but you’re not really there.”

Kennedy said there is an opportunity for improvement in mental health care in the Affordable Care Act requirement that all people must have health care insurance. He said the current health insurance system is “a shell game — pass-the-buck,” because those paying for insurance have had to pay inflated premiums to cover the treatment given to those with no insurance.

“The bottom line is, we’re still paying, but paying in a very costly way,” he said. “With health care reform, there will be more transparency. No more free riders living off everybody else,” said Kennedy, adding that smaller companies won’t have to be at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to providing mental health care coverage.

Kennedy spoke in Grand Rapids and Lansing as part of Hope Network’s campaign to advance the statewide conversation about the importance of integrating mental and physical health care.

“As we approach 50 years of providing specialty and community health services to the people of Michigan, we also acknowledge that there is much to be done in the way of integrating mental health care and access for those we serve,” said Phil Weaver, Hope Network president/CEO. “Hope Network pledges to help lead the statewide bi-partisan effort to integrate mental health care with physical health care in a way that is accessible to those in need. You don’t have to look too hard to find news stories that indicate the need to bring mental health care to the forefront.”

Gov. Rick Snyder made mental health a priority, establishing the Michigan Mental Health and Wellness Commission in late February. He also created by executive order the Mental Health Diversion Council within the Michigan Department of Community Health to reduce the number of people with mental illness, addictions or developmental disabilities who are routinely incarcerated in the state corrections system, rather than focusing on their mental health issues.

With Kennedy on the podium last week was Michigan Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, who is chairing the Michigan Mental Health and Wellness Commission.

“I applaud Hope Network for bringing the discussion of mental illness to the forefront. As a state, we want to be a leader in the integration of mental and physical health care,” said Calley. “We can’t address integration without greater awareness. On behalf of the state of Michigan, I welcome Patrick Kennedy to lead this conversation, given his story and perspective.”

As an example of what can be accomplished, Calley noted that 12 years ago Gov. John Engler launched an initiative to ensure all young children have dental care, and the initiative was continued by Gov. Granholm and Gov. Snyder. He noted that today, there are only five or six counties not yet covered by the childhood dental care program.

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