State Leadership Conference

State psychology leaders got a dose of positive reinforcement for their work and a look at the political landscape in this election year at the State Leadership Conference's closing banquet. The event began, appropriately, with thanks from a psychology comrade. Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.), a psychologist, paid a quick visit to the event to thank psychologists "for all that you do."

"Everyone I talk to has a family member or a friend who is affected in some way by mental illness," he said in explaining the importance of psychologists' efforts to gain mental health parity.

From Baird's gratitude to the humorous banter of political pundits Tucker Carlson and James Carville of CNN's "Crossfire," to Rep. Jim Ramstad's (R-Minn.) uplifting message of mental health parity, state leaders examined the health-care outlook and recognized one another's efforts to improve it.

Political perspectives

Carlson and Carville took turns at the mike injecting their share of partisan humor about the upcoming presidential election into the evening. They agreed on one thing: that America's foreign policy and military actions will be major issues in the race. Then Russ Newman, PhD, JD, APA's executive director for professional practice, refereed as the two squared off over pre-written questions.

To the question, "Can anything pass in Congress this year?" Democrat Carville quipped, "Gas," and was met with roars of laughter from the crowd. The conservative Carlson quickly followed with, "I'm against legislation, I'm for gridlock." He added, "Passing anything in an election year is a bad idea," referencing last year's much-debated prescription-drug benefit/Medicare bill. "Everyone hates [the bill]."

Newman then asked a pointed question: "President Bush stood with Sen. Pete Domenici [R-N.M.] in April 2002 and called for Congress to pass a full mental health parity bill...but the White House hasn't really taken action since. Does this happen on other issues?"

"Bush only has a certain amount of political capital," replied Carlson. "Is this an issue that he will spend a lot of time on? I doubt it."

Other issues such as the situation in Iraq, terrorism and his re-election will most likely take a front seat, said Carlson. "The country can't pay attention [to other things] right now," Carville said, explaining that the battle for the presidency might overshadow advocates' work on public policy.

Support for parity

"For those who believe parity won't pass this year, it's time for the rebuttal," Newman noted when he introduced the next speaker, Rep. Ramstad--recipient of this year's Practice Directorate Outstanding Leadership Award.

Ramstad, co-sponsor of the Paul Wellstone Mental Health Equitable Treatment Act, delivered.

"We'll do this in honor of Paul Wellstone and for the 54 million Americans suffering from a mental illness," he shouted. The road to parity is long and hard, he said, but the time is now for Congress to act. "Not only is it the right thing to do, it's the cost-effective thing to do," he said. In Ramstad's home state of Minnesota, Blue Cross/Blue Shield reduced insurance premiums by 5.5 percent after parity was enacted there, he noted.

Ramstad also spoke candidly about a related issue--insurance parity for substance abuse treatment.

"Three and a half million Americans last year were denied access to chemical dependency treatment--and 150,000 died as a direct result of alcoholism," he explained. "Like mental health parity, chemical dependency parity is the right thing to do."

Ramstad said his support for substance abuse treatment comes from personal experience: "On July 31, 1981, I woke up in a jail cell," he said. "That was my last alcoholic blackout because I had access to treatment."

Ramstad ended the evening the way it began--with a message of hope and thanks to psychologists, who he said were "dealing with life or death issues."

"You can make a big difference," he said about mental health parity. "Tell Congress this legislation will save lives. Tell them it's pro-family, it's pro-business, and it's the right thing to do."