On June 6, in record heat and humidity, more than 2,000 people gathered on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol for a rally in support of the Mental Health Equitable Treatment Act (S.543/H.R.4066), which would require insurance coverage for mental health disorders equivalent to coverage for physical illnesses and surgery.

Nancy Domenici, wife of longtime mental health advocate Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), led the rally as master of ceremonies. Speakers Sens. Domenici and Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) and Reps. Marge Roukema (R-N.J.) and Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.)--all sponsors of the bill--and three people who had been directly affected by a mental illness called on Congress and President Bush to pass mental health parity legislation this year.

The crowd erupted in cheers when Roukema spoke of action in the House, where 224 members are co-sponsors of the legislation: "The time to act is now. No more excuses from the House leaders!" She also pointed out that the cost of parity is minimal: "We now have Congressional Budget Office documentation that shows that this won't be outlandishly costly. It's less than 1 percent of an increase."

In addition to, or perhaps despite of, the sweltering temperature, Sens. Domenici and Wellstone heated up the crowd with shouts of "Parity now!"

"This legislation says we will no longer accept the stigma," said Wellstone. "End the discrimination now--we want full mental health coverage for every man, woman and child!"

Three speakers shared moving stories of their experiences with mental illness and insurance coverage. Lisa Cohen, who suffers from bipolar disorder as well as a rare blood disorder, said: "To me, the two illnesses I have are not that different. One affects my blood; one affects my brain chemistry. Untreated, both can be fatal. But with proper care, both can be treated successfully. Unfortunately, my insurance company chooses to view these illnesses with an unequal eye."

Jim McNulty, president of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, told the crowd how he was hospitalized in 1987 for major manic depression, then discharged with only a $500 outpatient benefit for further treatment. "I lost my wife, my job and my house," he said.

And Ron George, whose daughter Leslie died of bulimia at age 19, said: "Some day we'll understand that there is no real difference between mental and physical disorders. And someday we'll understand that the mind and body are two aspects of the same person."

Echoing George, Rep. Kennedy said, "We are still in this great country not affording many Americans with the most basic protections--that their whole bodies be covered by health insurance."

The rally was sponsored by the Mental Health Liaison Group, of which APA is a leader. The legislation is supported by more than 200 varied organizations, such as APA, American Humane Association, Easter Seals, Federation of American Hospitals, National Association of School Nurses, Service Employees International Union and the Arc of the United States.

--J. DAW