State Leadership Conference

Before a "demographic tsunami" of aging Americans hits the Medicare and Medicaid systems in the next few decades, psychologists need to ensure that mental health and physical health share equal priority in Congress, said Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) at the 2006 State Leadership Conference closing banquet.

Smith, who won this year's Outstanding Leadership Award-given annually to a member of Congress who has significantly contributed to the goals of professional psychology-has championed mental health legislation in the Senate for the past several years. Personal tragedy drew Smith to mental health issues: His 21-year-old son, college student Garrett Smith, committed suicide in September 2003 after battling bipolar disorder and depression.

"I learned a lesson then about how lethal mental disorders can be," Smith said, "and how important it is that we don't subsume it to physical health."

Since then, Smith has worked to sustain and increase mental health funding. He co-sponsored the Campus Care and Counseling Act in 2004, which was eventually adopted as part of a suicide-prevention bill named in his son's honor: the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act. This bill provided $82 million to mental health and suicide prevention programs on college campuses. And in 2005, Smith led a successful effort to defend Medicaid from a proposed $45 billion funding cut that would have endangered preventative mental and physical health services for children.

But, Smith said, there is still much work to be done before mental health achieves equal footing with physical health-and it is up to psychologists and other mental health workers to educate Congress and the public about why parity is necessary.

"The discrimination that's in our laws-like co-pays that are double what they are for physical health-is born of ignorance," Smith said.

It's particularly important for psychologists to advocate parity in the face of an aging U.S. population, as people are living longer and having fewer children, Smith said. This shift will necessitate major changes in entitlement spending like Medicare and Medicaid, he added.

"I'm for reform, but reform that is careful," he said. "Before this demographic tsunami hits us, we need to make sure mental health shares the same stage as physical health."

Also at the banquet, APA Practice Directorate Assistant Executive Director for Government Relations Marilyn Richmond, JD, presented this year's Federal Advocacy Coordinator Award to Stanley Moldawsky, PhD, of Maplewood, N.J.

Moldawsky, Richmond said, has been involved in every major legislative battle by the practice of psychology for more than four decades. "From licensing to freedom of choice, psychology access in Medicare to mental health parity-you name it, he's done it," she said.

-L. Winerman