"He understood that providing mental health coverage was essential for overall health, and it is to him more than any other, that we owe parity in coverage for psychiatric illnesses," Cohen said. "He also knew that the status quo was not acceptable, we not only had to provide better and more comprehensive care, we had to discover new and improved ways to treat people."
Dr. Mary Jeanne Kreek, professor and head of the Laboratory of Biology of Addictive Diseases at Rockefeller University in New York, has her own personal story of Kennedy's interest in substance abuse issues.
"I was first contacted by Senator Kennedy's senior aide on a Saturday afternoon in September of 1989. I was asked to come to Washington, D.C., to advise the Senator and his staff on addiction treatment and the role it should play in health care legislation," she recalled. Over a dinner meeting with Kennedy and his staffers, she said one exchange with the Senator was particularly memorable.
"Midway though our conversation, he stopped me and asked, 'Mary Jeanne, do you mean that treatment of addictions must be included in health care coverage?' I said, 'Yes, Senator, they are all one. Addictions are chronic diseases.' And he said, 'Thank you, Mary Jeanne.'"
She said that exchange began a years-long dialogue with Kennedy on the issue of including addiction treatment in health care legislation. She added that legislation aside, Kennedy also personally saw to the development at least one methadone maintenance program on Cape Cod.
And Dr. Steve Nissen, chairman of the Department of Cardiovascular Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, worked with Kennedy's office on landmark FDA legislation that introduced drug safety reforms. He said that Kennedy's well-known penchant for finding common ground made its way into his dealing on health issues as well.
"Senator Kennedy, with his extraordinary talent for forging bipartisan compromise, co-authored this legislation with conservative Republican Michael Enzi," Nissen said. "Amazingly, this bill achieved a very high level of bipartisan support, which was a tribute to Senator Kennedy's efforts. At the time, I argued for more aggressive reforms, but Senator Kennedy felt that a bipartisan bill was important and he found common ground."
It was this talent for seeking out consensus on health issues that Mark M. Rasenick, a professor at the University of Illinois College of Medicine and a member of Kennedy's health staff from 1999-2000.
"Senator Kennedy was a sailor and was comfortable with the idea of tacking several times in order to arrive at his destination," Rasenick said. "This included working with those holding decidedly different views -- I worked on a Kennedy-Helms bill to mandate colon cancer screening -- as long as they were concordant on the relevant issue.
Kennedy continued to push forward on his health care reform goals, even as he fought another, more personal health battle of his own. Dr. Mitchel Berger, chairman of the Department of Neurological Surgery at the University of California San Francisco, witnessed some of this battle firsthand.