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'The mental health parity law… is still not fully enforced,': Fmr. Representative Patrick Kennedy

Former Representative Patrick Kennedy, (D) Rhode Island, joined Yahoo Finance Live to break down the mental healthy parity law and the barriers people face when trying to access mental health and addiction services.

Video Transcript

ADAM SHAPIRO: And let's bring in our next guest, and that would be Representative-- former Representative Patrick Kennedy, to talk about some of the mental health issues that a lot of people have been dealing with, but also a webinar that is taking place tomorrow about the federal Parity Act or the Mental Parity Act.

Welcome, Representative Kennedy. Can you bring us up to speed about what it is you want the people who are watching us right now to know?

PATRICK KENNEDY: Well, the Mental Health Parity law, which I had the honor of cosponsoring over a decade ago, is still not fully enforced. It's driven principally by stigma and the lack of advocacy out there, people that organize around mental health the way they do cancer and heart disease and all other illnesses.

Not surprisingly, payers are very lax in following the law. And unfortunately, our regulatory system, our-- through our administrations in the past have not really had this as a priority. Obviously, since the pandemic and the increased suicide rate and overdose rate in this country, this is of paramount interest. We have longer life expectancies except for the fact that our deaths of despair are actually forcing down average life expectancy for all Americans.

So we have to do something. And it requires a multipronged approach. And enforcement of the Parity Law makes a big difference because it means less barriers to people being able to access mental health and addiction services.

Basically, the Parity Law says you cannot treat mental health and addiction any differently than any other physical illness in-network-- inpatient in-network, outpatient in-network, inpatient out-of-network, outpatient out-of-network, pharmacy, and emergency room. We are-- we were very deliberate in covering not just the quantitative treatment limit barriers, higher premiums, higher co-pays, higher deductibles, and lower lifetime caps, which were ways the insurance industry kept people from accessing mental health, but now they really use the medical management practices of preauthorization, concurrent review, retroactive review, paying their mental health clinician substandard wages such that there aren't really adequate number in the workforce to really address today's problems.

So we just really need a lot more urgency in this space. We have this webinar with the Secretary of Labor Walsh tomorrow. The Labor Department has oversight of these insurers because of the ERISA plans. ERISA multistate plans are-- account for roughly 80% of the insured market in this country. So Department of Labor has oversight through the Benefits Security Administration there.

SEANA SMITH: Right.

PATRICK KENNEDY: And we're very excited that Secretary Walsh has indicated he's going to take a much more aggressive position to enforcing this federal Mental Health Parity and addiction--

SEANA SMITH: When you talk about the more aggressive position, you talk about the enforcement of it. Obviously, a lot of that has to do with the federal government and getting the administration's backing. Certainly, this is a step in the right direction with the Labor Secretary tomorrow. But just in terms of the Biden administration's support overall, what are they not doing that you think they could be doing in order to better enforce some of these issues?

PATRICK KENNEDY: Well, we just need a lot more attention on these issues. We have, as I said, a very anemic workforce. So that means that the Biden administration-- when we talk about COVID, like you just had your previous guest on, the medical community has a responsibility.

The fact that we never heard from Dr. Fauci on the affects-- the mental health, psychiatric affects-- of COVID was a disgrace. The fact that we never included mental health screenings when we screened COVID, the fact that we never inoculated people for their mental health impact of COVID when they-- not when we inoculated them for their viral impact of COVID-- we could have reattached the brain with the rest of the body in our nation's response through the vaccinations. We could have made it crystal clear to people that health means to get the shot in the arm, but it also means take care of your anxiety, your depression, making sure we don't have dependency on alcohol, which has gone up quite a bit during the pandemic-- that that doesn't become alcoholism or that the sharp increase in benzodiazepines doesn't become another addiction crisis.

So it's just shocking to me that we don't do more messaging when we're talking about COVID that it includes mental health because at the end of the day, when this is all over in the next few years, I wouldn't be surprised if the total number of deaths to COVID are more in the mental health space from overdoses and suicides in the long run than they were-- with the lives we lost to the viral pandemic. And you would not even think that this was as big a deal as it is because of the almost exclusive focus that has been given to the viral part of the COVID.

- --to COVID-19--

PATRICK KENNEDY: Yeah.

- That's a very good point. Patrick, it's been a while since we've spoken. But I do recall a lot of this has been a concern, of course, since the-- since prior to the pandemic. But what we've seen is a lot of attention and almost a bracing for mental health to be the next pandemic, essentially.

So really quickly, there are-- there is a lot of investment right now in mental telehealth platforms. And so I want to know your thoughts on that and whether or not that is, in fact, a solution that we've been waiting for and whether or not the private sector funding could help sway the attention on it.

PATRICK KENNEDY: I think it's very exciting because it's a way for us to bring to scale the fact that, as I said, we have a very short and anemic, you know, cohort of mental health professionals who are able to scale up our access through telehealth, mental health platforms. I think especially in mental health, telehealth really has a unique advantage. People find that it is just, if not more, efficacious. It addresses a lot of the stigma barriers and logistics barriers that people have in going to see inpatient-- in-person therapy. And its outcomes are equally good provided the therapist use evidence-based therapy.

And that's the real worry in this-- is that it's going to be a kind of just general free-for-all on tele-mental health and people aren't going to get, really, the expertise and certain types of cognitive behavioral therapy because it's kind of all bets kind of a play by the mental health, tele-mental health, companies. They really need to do a much better job of curating their network of providers to match to the diagnoses of their-- of those patients that they're treating.

ADAM SHAPIRO: Real quick, nami.org, the National Alliance for Mental Illness, N-A-M-I dot org, is one place you can find some resources. We'll be right back.