May is Mental Health Awareness Month, which is a good time to bring attention to the fact that each year more than 36,000 Americans die by suicide. Sadly, many of these deaths could be prevented by treating the underlying depression, bipolar illness, alcohol and substance abuse and other mental disorders that contribute to suicide. Providing equitable health coverage for these illnesses is vital. Not doing so increases the risk for suicide.
In 2008, Congress passed the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act. The law had bipartisan support and was signed by President George W. Bush. It requires any group health plan and Medicaid managed-care plan that includes mental health and substance abuse benefits along with standard medical and surgical coverage to treat them equally in terms of out-of-pocket costs, benefit limits and practices such as prior authorization and utilization review.
As a U.S. senator, President Barack Obama voted for the law, yet final implementation of the law has been stalled under his administration since 2010. The failure of the Obama administration to implement the final rules on the bill has created confusion for employers over what must be covered. As a result, many health insurance plans still don't provide mental health coverage, or impose barriers and limitations to coverage that don't exist for other physical conditions.
This lack of action has a real negative impact on real lives. The 2011 publication of the State Estimates of Substance Use and Mental Disorders from the 2008-2009 National Surveys on Drug Use and Health revealed that of the 45.9 million adults with mental illness, fewer than half receive counseling or treatment. In 2010, of the 23 million people age 12 and older needing treatment for a substance abuse problem, less than 10 percent received any specialized treatment.
The same report showed that during 2008-2009, 5.4 percent of Utah adults aged 18 or older had serious thoughts of suicide in the past year. That's the highest percentage in the nation for the same time period. Nationally, during 2008-2009, 6.5 percent of adults aged 18 or older had a major depressive episode in the past year. In Utah, the number was 7.49 percent.
Families and individuals struggling with substance abuse, depression and other mental disorders should be able to quickly and easily access effective, proven methods of treatment when needed and it shouldn't be restricted to only those with the ability to pay. They shouldn't be faced with the kind of discriminatory barriers to treatments that are all too common.
As a volunteer field advocate for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and as part of Mental Health Awareness Month, I hope you will join me in urging the president to issue the final regulations for the Mental Health parity law.
Keicha Christiansen lives in Ogden.