To say that there is a lot going on in Washington, DC these days is an understatement. Although the most recent events have taken the attention away from efforts to reform access to healthcare, the initiative that was passed by the House of Representatives and now forwarded to the Senate for consideration represents a development in public policy that potentially will have significant impact on all Americans for generations.
The American Health Care Act proposal places in question a number of provisions of the current Affordable Care Act (ACA) at the discretion of individual states as to the scope of health care coverage. What now is called essential benefits would be affected, including access to mental health care.
Over the last 20 years, advocates, including Hillsides, have pressed for greater access to mental health services, not only because these services are essential to all those we serve but because the availability of these services can create a significant and lasting positive impact. Failure to treat mental health issues often exacerbates chronic physical ailments and jeopardizes the well-being and long-term stability of many. Chronic mental health issues often place clients at risk of harm to themselves and, in some rare instances, of harming others. We have seen the horrific effect of the lack of mental illness treatment in suicide rates and violent exchanges that have left innocent people dead. To remove mental health treatment from the list of essential services to be covered in a health care plan and leave its inclusion to the discretion of individual states is a reckless and short-sighted proposal. It will only lead to extraordinary disparity in care, limit considerably affordable access to this essential service, and result in needless harm to the mentally ill and our communities in general.
It is devastatingly ironic that such a proposal, endorsed by the House of Representatives, should be advanced during May, the month set aside to call attention to the plight of many who are challenged by mental illness. As I visit our residential treatment center or hear our community-based therapists discuss the challenges of their clients, I am increasingly concerned that limiting in any way the availability of indispensable mental health services will create considerable harm. Any reduction in access to mental health funding will without a doubt impair our effectiveness with our clients.
Many have dismissed the proposed legislation as a “statement of principles” offered to guide the upcoming discussion that will result in a final piece of legislation, which will be very different from what we have presently. If that is the case, then all the more reason for a voice to be raised to make clear that these principles do not serve the best interests of the most vulnerable, and in the long run, threaten the well-being of all. To offer the elimination of essential services as part of a negotiation tactic without an appreciation of the worry and concern that it raises for vulnerable people is cruel. The need for unfettered access to affordable and quality mental health services saves lives and safeguards the interests of our communities. To deny it or somehow make it more challenging to access or afford it is a statement to those in need that their lives are not valued and perhaps even dispensable.
In spite of what clearly is an array of issues that has captured the attention of legislators and policymakers in our nation’s capital, during this month of May, all are encouraged to reach out to their respective legislators and ask them to support the inclusion of mental health services in any healthcare legislation.