Friday, June 20, 2008

Mental Health and Genetic Information Bill - Walberg Doesn't Vote

Bumped to the top. This one matters to me for a lot of reasons, and I want to highlight the update at the bottom. -- Fitzy

Today, I'll be going back through the last few months and writing about some votes that I missed when they happened. I'd like to start with one that's incredibly important to me. (Thank you to the anonymous comments on this back when it happened.)

From my point of view, one of the greatest men to serve in the United States Senate was a man named Paul Wellstone. Wellstone was a political science professor at Carlson College who was elected as a Democrat in 1990 to represent Minnesota in the Senate, where he proudly articulated the progressive point of view. He's the one who popularized the line, "I represent the democratic wing of the Democratic Party," not Howard Dean, and his book The Conscience of a Liberal is a must-read for anyone of any political orientation.

In 2002, Paul Wellstone, his wife, Sheila, his daughter, Marcia, three campaign staffers, the pilot, and the copilot died in a plane crash just a few days before Election Day. Wellstone, despite his leftward lean, is fondly remembered by his Senate colleagues.

Prior to his death, Senator Wellstone had made mental health legislation one of his top priorities, as a result of his own experience with his brother, who suffered from mental illness. A leading ally in his efforts was Republican Senator Pete Domenici, whose daughter suffers from schizophrenia. Wellstone crafted a bill which would end discrimination against mental illness in health care coverage. As the New York Times explains:
Federal law now allows insurers to discriminate, and most do so, by setting higher co-payments or stricter limits on mental health benefits.

“Illness of the brain must be treated just like illness anywhere else in the body,” said Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California. Supporters of the House bill, including consumer groups and the American Psychiatric Association, said it would be a boon to many of the 35 million Americans who experience disabling symptoms of mental disorders each year.


Typical annual limits include 30 visits to a doctor or 30 days of hospital care for treatment of a mental disorder. Such limits would no longer be allowed if the insurer had no limits on treatment of conditions like cancer, heart disease and diabetes.


Three factors contributed to support for the legislation. First, researchers have found biological causes and effective treatments for numerous mental illnesses. Second, a number of companies now specialize in managing mental health benefits, making the costs to insurers and employers more affordable.

Finally, some doctors say that the stigma of mental illness has faded as people see members of the armed forces returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with mental disorders.

Supporters of mental health parity see it as a civil rights issue, and the debate Wednesday was filled with poignant moments.

“I have a mental illness, and I am fortunately getting the best care this country has to offer because I am a member of Congress,” said Representative Patrick J. Kennedy, Democrat of Rhode Island and chief sponsor of the House bill. Mr. Kennedy has been treated for depression and drug dependence.

The main Republican sponsor, Representative Jim Ramstad of Minnesota, a recovering alcoholic, said, “I am living proof that treatment works and recovery is real.”

Wellstone's legislation has been reintroduced by his colleagues since his death, notably Congressmen Patrick Kennedy and Jim Ramstad in the House. When it finally came to the House floor for a vote in 2008 as HR 1424, it had the alternate title "Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act," but it is still often referred to as the Paul Wellstone Mental Health and Addiction Equity Act.

I can't emphasize enough how important this legislation is and how much it just makes sense. Mental health deserves the same attention and care as physical health, and those who suffer from mental illness don't deserve the discrimination they often receive from our society.

For more information on the bill, click here. Text of HR 1424 is available here.

On March 5, 2008, the House of Representatives finally voted on HR 1424, following a decade-long struggle. It passed, by a vote of 268 to 148, with 13 not voting.

Congressman Tim Walberg... didn't vote.

Oh, he was there that day. The vote for HR 1424 was at 8:03pm, but Walberg did vote immediately before that (7:56pm, to try to send the bill back to committee) and immediately after (8:11pm, to name a post office after someone). But for some reason, Congressman Walberg didn't even bother to take a position on ending discrimination against mental illness.

Congressman, do you not support the bill?

Do you think there's something wrong with it, and you just lack the spine to oppose it?

Do you think those with mental illness deserve to pay more and get less service?

Did you have something more important to do for 15 minutes?

Did you really need to use the bathroom?

Is there any legitimate explanation, Congressman Walberg? It was a straight, yes-or-no vote. If there was something you didn't like about the bill, you could have at least explained why you didn't want to vote for it. The only news item on your website from March 5th has nothing to do with health care.

Were you just hoping no one would notice?

Congressman Walberg, do you think mental illness should be discriminated against?

Michigan's 7th District deserves better than this.

UPDATE: I did a little more looking today, out of curiosity. The Paul Wellstone Mental Health and Addiction Equity Act was recommended to the House of Representatives by the House Committee on Education and Labor, and Congressman Walberg serves on that committee.

On July 18, 2007, the committee voted 33 to 9 to send the bill the full House.

Congressman Tim Walberg... didn't vote. For some reason, even in committee, where Walberg could have fixed any problems he saw, he just couldn't be bothered to take a stand.

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