With an estimated one in four American adults suffering from a mental disorder in any given year, we cannot lose sight of the fact that mental illness remains a major public health issue of our generation. Nor should we only acknowledge our country’s perennial mental health crisis in times of a national tragedy like a mass shooting.
Therefore, it might be time now for the news media and naysayers to refocus and talk about the potential benefits and far-reaching positive impact of the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare. One of these areas is our nation’s mental health sector and the millions of Americans it helps.
Unfortunately, the discourse regarding anything “Obamacare” always turn to political wrangling.
Last year, instead of fixing the imperfections of the historic health law, political ideology prevailed. Thus, it was not surprising that public opinion polls conducted in the earlier part of 2013 indicated that only a third of Americans understood how the Affordable Care Act actually worked.
By year’s end, arguably, it’s not all doom and gloom when it comes to the Affordable Care Act. We also made gains in our quest for the transformation of America’s “mental healthcare system” that yet remains inaccessible, costly, fragmented, uncoordinated, and inequitable at best.
Amid the firestorm of pointless political noise, two important milestones during the final months of 2013 are worth noting.
• On November 8, the Obama administration published the long-awaited final rules of the 2008 Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act that would require insurers to cover mental health and substance abuse disorders.
This finally levels the playing field — bringing it on par with physical disorders.
Along with the mental health parity provisions, the Affordable Care Act will provide the largest behavioral health coverage expansion for our generation, covering more than 60 million Americans.
Another historic shift starting in the current year is that insurance companies will no longer be able to deny you coverage for pre-existing conditions, including a history of mental illness.
• On December 10, during the week of the anniversary of the Newtown tragedy, the Obama administration once again stepped up when it announced that it would increase funding for mental health services by $100 million to improve access to mental health services and facilities. Part of the funding will come from the Affordable Care Act. Albeit much-awaited and long overdue, the announcement made by Vice President Joe Biden was welcomed news to a nation still grieving over these senseless — and all too frequent — mass shootings.
Some critics believe these changes don’t go far enough in overhauling America’s broken mental healthcare system.
These days, however, not enough is better than nothing, considering that the current political climate in Washington places ideology over compromise.
Much work still must be done to fulfill the promise and achieve the complete transformation of the nation’s fragmented system of mental health care. But no matter how small the win, it remains a win and we have to acknowledge any historic step forward.
Ironically, the forecast is a bit gloomy here in Florida when it comes to healthcare insurance coverage.
With nearly four million Floridians uninsured — an estimated 744,000 uninsured residents in Miami-Dade County alone — our state still lags behind.
Unless the Florida Legislature decides to take the humane step of assuring coverage for the uninsured by not rejecting billions in Medicaid dollars provided by the Affordable Care Act, we stand at a disadvantage compared to the rest of the nation.
Other states have already taken the bold and logical step of transforming their mental healthcare systems for their most vulnerable population – the mentally ill. Let us hope that this year our state’s political leaders will stand up for them, too, by accepting federal dollars to expand Medicaid.
That would open the door to a new beginning in our effort to provide accessible, affordable, and quality mental healthcare to Florida’s poor and mentally ill as they seek treatment and begin their journey towards recovery.
R. John Repique is senior vice-president/chief administrative officer and chief nursing officer for Jackson Behavioral Health Hospital, Jackson Health System in Miami.