GULL LAKE, Minn.—Patrick Kennedy, son of Ted Kennedy and nephew of former President John F. Kennedy, has a lot to say on mental health care in this country.
Besides being a Kennedy, he’s also a recovering from drug addiction and suffers from bipolar disorder.
Speaking Thursday to the Minnesota Hospital Association annual meeting at Madden’s Resort on Gull Lake, Kennedy talked to more than 100 healthcare professionals for more than an hour.
It wasn’t the first time the 50-year-old former eight-term Rhode Island congressman visited Minnesota. Kennedy was in the state at least twice before to receive treatment for addiction at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. He acknowledged that at the same time in his life when he was advocating in Congress against the stigma of seeking mental health treatment, he refused to be admitted to the Generose drug rehab building of Mayo, instead insisting on getting rehab treatment in a different location on campus for fear of what people might think.
A dance with death
Addiction confronted Kennedy early, with his first rehab stint coming at age 17. His troubles continued through his time representing the Providence area in Rhode Island’s statehouse and into his tenure in Washington.
“I continued to suffer, because I couldn’t accept the fact that my illness was a chronic illness,” he said. “I thought, like most Americans do, that once you go rehab, you’re all set.”
After surgery to remove a tumor on his back, Kennedy received carte blanche from doctors to get as many prescribed painkillers as he wanted, he said. What resulted was an addiction to OxyContin that culminated in a 2006 incident when Kennedy had an unfortunate run-in on Capitol Hill. Driving his car while high on prescription drugs, Kennedy drove onto the sidewalk and crashed into a security barrier, but not before nearly running down a Capitol police officer. During his speech Thursday, Kennedy emphasized that only “2 inches” separated him from hitting the officer and spending the rest of his life in prison.
After the incident, Kennedy went to treatment at Mayo again and has been sober since 2011.
Looking back, one of the things that struck Kennedy about addiction was how willing those around him were to ignore what was clearly going on right in front of them. After he got clean, his congressional staff and other associates would tell him how secretly worried they were about him.
“I’m like, ‘Yeah, but you never said anything. You never said anything,'” Kennedy said.
Both of Kennedy’s parents—Ted Kennedy and Virginia Bennett—were alcoholics. But incidents involving his mom stuck out in Kennedy’s mind. As a kid, Kennedy dutifully tried to hide his mom when company came to the family home. But sometimes he failed, and Bennett would shamble incoherently past the men talking politics, clad only in a bathrobe.
“None of them looked up when my mom shuffled through the house,” Kennedy said, raising his voice in anger at the memory. “They went on with their meeting, as if what had just happened, never happened.”
The same is true of the current suicide and overdose crisis across the country—it’s ignored because ignoring the suffering is easier than acknowledging it, Kennedy said.
He pointed out Congress appropriated $15 billion just three days after coming back to session in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. President Donald Trump’s administration in April announced $485 million in grants spread across all 50 states to fight the opioid crisis. A further $144 million was announced earlier this month.
“In the totality of Harvey and Irma—of deaths from those two catastrophic hurricanes—(it’s) less than half of what we lose on a daily basis to overdoses of opioids and others,” Kennedy said. He screamed the world “half.”
His numbers were pretty close, as of Thursday: Harvey killed 70 people, Irma, at least 49. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, an estimated 64,000 Americans died from overdoses in 2016. That’s more than 175 people dying per day.
Call to arms
“I often get introduced as ‘the leader of mental health care policy in this country,'” Kennedy said. “That should tell you a lot about how bad things are in this country.”
Self-deprecating jokes aside, Kennedy was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives at age 27, then the youngest member of Congress. His signature legislative achievement while in Congress was the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008, which requires insurance companies not to discriminate when it comes to offering coverage of mental health care treatment compared to physical health care.
As Kennedy pointed out in his speech, one of the key drivers on the Senate companion bill to Kennedy’s House bill was Minnesota’s own Sen. Paul Wellstone. When Wellstone was killed in a plane crash, Kennedy pressed his father Ted into service to sponsor it instead.
The Senate bill only covered hereditary mental illnesses, not things like post-traumatic stress disorder or addiction or anxiety, but the House bill did cover those things. It meant the younger Kennedy had to try to convince his father to see things his way despite Ted Kennedy being a member of an older, more conservative generation.
But it worked, and the older Kennedy used his connections to help tuck the bill into the gargantuan, must-pass bank bailout bill during the 2008 financial crisis. As Kennedy wryly put it Thursday, the bill to prevent a financial depression ultimately became a vehicle to help treat literal depression.
But even today, the law that now bears Paul Wellstone’s name is rarely obeyed, Kennedy said. Mental health care providers are paid a fraction of what their counterparts in physical health care get. He drew a parallel between the civil rights movement and the widespread need to get mental health treatment.
“Mental health care is separate and unequal,” Kennedy said.
Health insurance companies need to be more transparent so they can be held accountable, he said. He referenced Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota’s recent decision to cut mental health care payments to providers by double digits.
“Are you kidding me?!” Kennedy said. “What’s their excuse? They say ‘Oh, (our mental health care reimbursement) is higher than the national average.’ I hope so! The national average is pitiful.”
The cuts prompted therapists to protest outside Blue Cross’ Eagan headquarters, the Star Tribune reported.
But the fact mental health did not have a strong enough lobbying and advocacy arm meant Blue Cross would likely escape repercussions, Kennedy said.
“The fact is, they’re going to get away with this,” Kennedy said. “They’re getting away with it in every state of the country, because we don’t have any organized effort to push back.”
Graham-Cassidy is ‘states’ rights’
With an equal vigor to his lambasting of Blue Cross, Kennedy decried the recently introduced Graham-Cassidy bill in the Senate, which would partially repeal the Affordable Care Act. He called Graham-Cassidy “horrific” in his remarks to the MHA. In an interview afterwards, Kennedy described the bill as an extension of the states’ rights movement.
“In the ’60s, we were fighting to end segregation based on where you lived in this country,” he said. “The federal civil rights law said justice should depend on geography. If you’re a person of color, you should not be treated differently from one state to the next. And yet, under Graham-Cassidy, we’re going to set up a block grant program where literally, whether you get a wheelchair or not, whether you get assisted living if you have someone with an intellectual disability, is going to depend on what side of the state line you live on.”
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