Patrick Kennedy Calls for Mental Health Insurance Reforms in Colorado

Colorado must reform laws and insurance benefits to give patients and families access to mental illness treatment equal to what as they usually get for medical treatment, panelists at an informal "hearing" said Thursday night.

The mental health community has waited more than four years since passage of a federal parity in treatment act for a final set of rules to be issued, and the time is far past due, said former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy and other speakers.

Telling patients to walk "down the hall" to get mental health care, if they can get it at all, is the same as telling black Americans in the 1960s to walk down the hall to the "colored" fountain, Kennedy said.

"It's long past time we as a nation move into the 21st Century," Kennedy said, and ensure mental illnesses "no longer get segregated and dismissed as character issues rather than chemistry issues."

The hearing, an airing of issues and advocacy on parity, drew about 200 people to the Denver Art Museum, and was opened by former Colorado first lady Jeannie Ritter.

The mother of a boy suffering severe depression and suicidal impulses from age 6 testified about the gaps in insurance coverage, when the best psychiatric hospitals were "out of network" and only emergency, acute care would be paid.

"If he'd had leukemia, can you imagine them rationing that care?" Kennedy summed up.

Health care professionals and recovering patients said Colorado has the chance to pre-empt the abysmally late federal rules with the state health care exchange and other provisions of the 2010 Affordable Care Act.

"The insurance companies are fighting these rules. Why are we waiting for Washington to take care of this for us," said George DelGrosso, head of the Colorado Behavioral Healthcare Council, a coalition of mental health providers. Colorado can make sure the minimum benefits required in policies sold on the exchange opening in 2014 offer parity with medical care, and surpass the "floor" created by federal minimums, he said.

Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey said reviews have shown 30 percent of inmates in Colorado have diagnosed mental health and substance abuse issues. Those coming through Denver courts with good private insurance "have so many more options for treatment", and better chances for avoiding recidivism, Morrissey said. Enforcing a parity rule would decrease criminal activity in the future, he said.

Recent gun tragedies perpetrated by people with apparent mental health issues should lend a new urgency to the fight for treatment parity, Kennedy said. He also encouraged states to rethink their involuntary mental health commitment rules, as Colorado has already announced it will do.

States can help families find inpatient care for resistant patients without harming civil liberties, Kennedy said, calling the two issues a "false dichotomy."

Michael Booth: 303-954-1686,