About 100 behavioral health advocates at a reception hosted by the National Association of County Behavioral Health and Developmental Disability directors (NACBHDD) in the foyer of the Rayburn House Office Building were surprised and delighted Monday afternoon when Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) made a surprise visit to introduce the subjects of the celebration, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA).
Waxman, Chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and Harkin, Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, were honored by NACHBDD as leaders in the effort to gain passage of the Wellstone-Domenici Mental Health and Addiction Equity Act of 2008, which went into effect in January.
Following an impromptu introduction by Patricia Ryan, Executive Director of the California Mental Health Director’s Association, Kennedy rose to address the group, saying, “Every year in my public life, I have met people whose lives were influenced by the work of people in my family in civil rights, in recovery, and in other areas of life where they faced stigma and shame.” Kennedy called his involvement with the parity movement one of his “greatest experiences as a legislator,” since it offered him “a chance to hear and share in the stories of the important work that is being done, work that is moving the ball on behalf of the people who are always on the defensive, always the underdogs.”
He congratulated NACHBDD members and fellow advocates, asserting “the people in this room, and those you work with, are the true winners in the game of life,” because “your North Star, your measure of progress and value in life, is shown through the people and the cause that you serve.” Citing the example of Martin Luther King and the long fight for civil rights, Kennedy stated that “with your help, and the leadership of people like Henry Waxman and Tom Harkin, we fought and won a similar fight against those who would deny healthcare for mental health and substance abuse based on stigma and shame.”
After receiving a framed painting created by a mental health consumer, Rep. Waxman thanked Kennedy and the assembled group in brief remarks, commenting that the parity struggle was fought and won in the face of “the most powerful and well-financed interests in the country.” Acknowledging the current struggle for passage of the president’s landmark healthcare reform bill, he added that although the current bill is not perfect, it represents “a major step” toward the goal of making healthcare available to all Americans.
While Sen. Harkin was unable to attend, his senior aide for mental health policy, Melissa Warner, stepped in to receive his honor—another striking painting by a mental health consumer—and offered brief remarks thanking NACHBDD and all supporters of parity and healthcare reform. “We are almost there. I urge you to contact your representatives and senators to help us get where we need to go—to support healthcare reform that will make the promise of parity available to all Americans.”
In impromptu closing remarks, Kennedy, who will not seek reelection to his House seat, called on advocates to support the ongoing efforts of Waxman, Harkin, and other leaders to ensure a “core benefits” package of mental health and addiction treatment services, mandated training in mental health and addiction treatment for the nation’s physicians, and a national standard to ensure quality at mental health and addiction treatment centers nationwide.