Photo courtesy of Kennedy's web site

Rhode Island Congressman Patrick Kennedy spent the weekend in Iowa stumping for U.S. Senator Chris Dodd, who is campaigning for president. He said while he was there he had an opportunity to speak with members of the International Fire Fighters Union who told him about 50 percent of the phone calls they receive from their membership are related to drug and alcohol addiction.

“Our health care system is ignoring two-thirds of its population,” by not covering many of these mental health and addiction issues, Kennedy told a group of mental health experts and advocates at the Legislative Office Building Monday. He said the health care system would save money if it addressed these issues because the suicide rate and the number of alcohol-related accidents would go down.

Kennedy was in the Nutmeg state Monday with freshman Congressman Chris Murphy, D-5, advocating for his mental health parity bill. The bill would help improve access to mental health and addiction treatment and prohibit health insurers from placing discriminatory restrictions on treatment.

The bill would require insurers to cover the same range of mental illnesses and addiction disorders covered by the federal employee health plan that members of Congress use. Kennedy said group plans would be required to offer parity in co-pays and deductibles to those who qualify for mental health services. The services won’t be an add-ons they will be part of your overall insurance plan, he said.

The parity requirements of the bill apply to group plans with 51 or more employees and does not affect smaller employers or the individual insurance market.

So far, 238 members of Congress have co-sponsored the bill in the House, which means it already has enough votes to pass. “I think the will is there to get this done,” Kennedy said. “The president has already agreed to sign it,” and it has bipartisan support. He said since Congressman Jim Ramstad, R-Minnesota, the bill’s other sponsor, is retiring next year, he expects it will be passed in 2008.

“Mental illness does not discriminate whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat,” Murphy said. He said the difficult thing has been convincing people to determine the cost savings in the proposal.

This September Congressional Budget Office estimated the cost of the bill at $4 billion over 10 years. Kennedy said the CBO came up with the cost by figuring that employers would lower their employees incomes and the amount of income taxes employees would pay the federal government would be less.

Kennedy said he disagrees with the estimate. He said people are already paying for this type of coverage, they’re just being denied coverage. Ultimately “in the long run the benefit is cancelled out by the fact that for all plans catastrophic events will subside,” Murphy said.

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