Tragedy Fuels Mental Health Parity Bill

After a decades-long fight to enact legislation championing the medical rights of the mentally ill, only Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., stood at the finish line to hail a bittersweet victory.

The mental health parity bill, which had lingered in Congress since 1996, was a vehicle for lawmakers to pass the financial bailout that was signed into law in record time by President Bush last week. The law requires that insurance companies treat those with, say, depression the same way as those with diabetes or AIDS.

"Senator Domenici became a hero for us," said Michael Fitzpatrick, director of the National Alliance in Mental Illness (NAMI). "His tenacity and vision over the course of many years finally brought it home."

Two powerful partners share in the legacy of the bill's passage: the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., and Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. Wellstone was killed in a plane crash in 2002, and Kennedy, who took up the charge after Wellstone's untimely death, is ailing with a life-threatening brain tumor.

Named for its initial co-sponsors, the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act was more than 12 years in the making. Its success hung on a coalition of lawmakers who all had been touched by mental illness.

Wellstone: Political 'Odd Couple'

For the political "odd couple," as Wellstone called them, it was personal: Wellstone's brother had been hospitalized as a boy, causing near financial demise for the family. Domenici's daughter Clare was diagnosed 20 years ago with atypical schizophrenia, wreaking emotional havoc on his family.

"Everyone who lives in this great, good nation of ours knew the government had forgotten this one issue," Domenici told ABCNews.com. "This has been a long time coming."

Mental health advocates say that the law will make life easier for families who faced limited doctor visits and higher deductibles and co-pays for mental health treatment. A teen in a car accident was far better off than one with psychosis, in the eyes of most insurance companies.

Domenici said he had e-mailed Kennedy, who was too sick to make it to Washington, and the Massachusetts senator confirmed happily, 'This is a big one.'"

The bill eventually garnered widespread support because of the tenacity of Domenici, a father of eight, whose own struggle struck a chord in others.

Kennedy's sister Rosemary, who died in 2005 at the age 86, spent a life disabled and institutionalized after a lobotomy for mental illness nearly 60 years ago. His first wife, Joan, still wages a public battle with alcoholism.

The senator's son, Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, D-R.I., who sponsored the House version of the parity bill, has faced bouts of prescription drug abuse and depression.

"There isn't an individual or a family that has been spared the impact of these devastating illnesses," Rep. Kennedy said in an e-mail. "To deny coverage, when proven and available treatments can make such a positive difference in a person's life and their family's life, is beyond infuriating."

Just recently, Domenici was diagnosed with frontotemporal lobar degeneration, or Pick's disease, which progressively affects brain functions like organization, decision-making and control of mood and behavior.

The six-term senator retires in 2009, but not without leaving a historic legacy for 113 million Americans under employer-sponsored insurance plans who are expected to benefit from the legislation.

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