State Leadership Conference

Colleagues of Sen. Pete Domenici's (R-N.M.) have joked that he has a "terminal case of responsibility." But the quip accurately describes his unwavering commitment to mental health issues. He co-sponsored the Domenici-Wellstone Mental Health Parity Act of 1996, as well as the Mental Health Equitable Treatment Act of 2001.

The 1996 law prohibits private insurers from establishing limits on mental health coverage. The 2001 bill, which passed the Senate but was rejected by U.S. House of Representatives negotiators on an appropriations bill, would have required insurers to provide equal coverage to mental and physical health. Instead, the 1996 law was extended for a year.

For his "tireless dedication and persistent action," Russ Newman, PhD, JD, APA's executive director for practice, presented the senator, who was first elected to the Senate in 1972, with this year's Outstanding Leadership Award at the State Leadership Conference in March.

After quieting the cheering crowd of nearly 500, Domenici incited more applause when he spoke about mental health parity: "I believe there's a probability that next year at this conference you'll be able to say 'We got it done.'" Support for parity remains strong in the Senate, but Domenici urged attendees to "address the issue in the House," where there aren't as many supportive votes.

He also offered conference attendees tips on how to visit their legislators on Capitol Hill the following day. "You have to go out of your way to make the member of Congress you visit understand that this isn't about doing anyone a favor," he said. "This is a must because it's important. All we are asking for is that private health insurance benefits already enjoyed by members of Congress and federal employees be available to the mentally ill of the United States."

Domenici warned attendees that they would face two arguments from opposition when they went to Congress to talk about mental health parity--"that it costs too much...and the scope of coverage is too broad."

To the first point, he said the Congressional Budget Office estimated a cost increase of only 1 percent--"a very small amount of money"--if mental health received equal coverage. And to the second point, he told attendees to tell the opposition, "The coverage is the same as federal employees and members of Congress get. If it's fair for you...it should be fair for Americans."