Former U.S. Rep Patrick Kennedy continues fight for addiction and mental health care

By: Suzanne Russel
BRANCHBURG – Former U.S. Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy has been out of Congress for six years, but he continues to fight for the key issues that he battled for during his 16 years in Washington, D.C.

Kennedy sponsored the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, signed by former President George W. Bush, which classified the brain as part of the body. Kennedy, who was joined at the signing by his father, the late U.S. Sen.Edward Kennedy, said the signing took place on the same desk where his uncle, President John F. Kennedy, signed the original Community Mental Health Act of 1960.

“And illnesses of the brain need to be covered the same as any illness of some other organ of the body,” said Kennedy, considered one of the leading voices on mental health and addiction and member of the president’s Commission on the Opioid Crisis.

The act requires health insurance carriers to provide coverage parity between mental health and addictions disorders and medical and surgical conditions, especially with regard to financial requirements and treatment limitations.

 “The thing that has held us back in actually getting insurance companies from following the law that they are obligated to follow is because unlike other issues most people do not want to put their hand up and say I’m one of those people being discriminated against in terms of the access of treatment,” said Kennedy, during a keynote address Wednesday at the Fall Professional Conference presented by Safe Communities Coalition of Hunterdon/Somerset and Prevention Resources Inc. at Raritan Valley Community College in Branchburg.

For example, cancer treatment begins at the first sign or screening, rather than waiting until someone is at Stage IV. Addiction treatment doesn’t begin until it’s in the brain.

“We put treatment at the furthest end of the road, when instead if we practiced the same preventative medicine and screening that we do all other physical health issues, we would absolutely be interrupting the cycle that  has led to so many deaths due to addiction and suicide,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy knows mental health and addiction issues first hand. While in the state legislature in Rhode Island and seeking re-election, a man he was in drug treatment with sold his story to a tabloid newspaper for $10,000, splashing Kennedy’s photo on the cover.

Kennedy, the youngest child of Edward Kennedy,  who served in Congress for 50 years, and nephew of former U.S. President John F. Kennedy, feared it would be the end of his political career, but it wasn’t. He went on to sponsor the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Act in Congress. His said his father sponsored the Senate bill.

“Which meant my dad and I, who had never been able to discuss mental health and addiction, even though both issues had a profound impact on our family, found ourselves negotiating national public policy on how to treat mental health and addiction for everybody else,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy said his father experienced trauma after watching his brothers be assassinated, in 1963 and 1968, as well as the death of Mary Jo Kopechne in his father’s car when it crashed in Chappaquiddick in 1969, as well as other deaths in his life.

“Back then we didn’t know what trauma was,” said Kennedy, adding his father couldn’t avail himself of mental health treatment for fear he would be viewed as weak. He was never offered help either.

“That’s not the way it was and he went on with his life suffering,” Kennedy said.

His mother, Joan Kennedy, also suffered, Kennedy said, with debilitating alcoholism and powerful depression. He said his father would have people discussing public policy in their home and none of them would look up when his inebriated mother stumbled through the house in the middle of the day. He and his siblings did there best to get  their mother back in her room and shut the door.

“We were pretending that no one could see her, because that’s how we coped,” he said. “And we still as a nation are still in that same old, outdated coping mechanism, called denial.”

The nation denies mental illness and how it is hurting families, he said.

Part of the reason the country can’t deal with this challenge is because Americans don’t like the symptoms of these illnesses and what they do in turning friends and family into the enemy.

Kennedy said there needs to be a serious discussion with insurance companies about what they are willing to pay for: “An ounce of prevention or a pound of cure.”

After his keynote, Kennedy signed copies of his new book, “A Common Struggle,” written with Stephen Fried.

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