Dear Mr. President,
I admired your efforts yesterday to try and get some bipartisan discussion on how we can reform the health insurance system so it is affordable to the working class people, and so people can get affordable health care. During the discussions you stated, “The people who are really left in the cold are working families who make too much for Medicaid and don't have anywhere to go. That's the group that right now is getting the worst deal. They're paying taxes, they're working, but they've got nowhere to go.” You also stated, “the fact of the matter is, is that very poor people right now have coverage that is superior to what a lot of folks who make a little more money, are working very hard trying to support their families, do not.
Towards the end, you also said something that is similar to what I’ve been saying all along, which was, “And so we can debate whether or not we can afford to help them, but we shouldn't pretend somehow that they don't need help.”
You are absolutely correct in all of these statements, save for one issue, Mental Illness, which seems to be all but abandoned in the health care reform discussions. The main issue I speak about is long-term care for people who are debilitated by severe mental illness. They are the ones that continue to be “left out in the cold”, often quite literally; over a third of our homeless population, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, have a severe mental illness.
Nothing in the health care reform bills that have been laid out before you so far will help people like my brother, Paul, who was pushed out the state hospital system, in which he was committed for over 20 years. He was pushed into a community mental health system for which he was ill-equipped to handle. Many people who are like Paul don’t even recognize they are ill, which is required when receiving treatment on the “outside”. We were told repeatedly that Paul needed to learn to live on his own while at the same time doctors were telling us Paul would never recover. He never had a day without delusional thoughts for over 30 years. How he was expected to learn to live on his own is beyond comprehension. Paul proceeded to cycle in and out of psychotic states, requiring re-hospitalization, almost immediately. Yet we were told there was no going back; virtually no one has access to long-term care anymore, unless you are rich.
Now, we have gone back to criminalizing mental illness. Prisons now act as de-facto psychiatric hospitals, with "patients" numbering far greater than any facility available to people in the community. Prisons often provide inadequate care – or none at all. Some prisoners with severe mental illness not only don't get treatment, they are thrown into isolation for months, even years. Paul was picked up by the police on a number of occasions. Something could have happened during one of these incidents that could have landed him in jail, but luckily he was taken to the hospital each time. Others are not so lucky; they either hurt someone or are convicted on drug charges as many people with untreated mental illness use drugs to self medicate and have a dual diagnosis of mental illness and drug addiction. I am thankful beyond compare that this was not Paul's fate, but it could have been, and it is for many, many people like him.
The mental health parity law, enacted in 2008, would not have helped Paul, and neither would the health care reforms that have been discussed to date. Paul was a Medicaid patient, the same sort of person you say receive "coverage that is superior to what a lot of folks who make a little more money" have. Obviously, you did not have people with mental illness in mind when you said that, or you are unaware of the situation. Neither conclusion leaves me with any peace of mind that the treatment of people like Paul will get better any time soon.
There is only one solution to this problem and that is to end the 40-year old discriminatory practice of excluding patients in “Institutes for Mental Diseases” or “IMDs” from Medicaid coverage. The Medicaid Institutes for Mental Diseases (IMD) Exclusion, enacted as a part of Medicaid at its inception, has provided the states with a financial incentive to deny care, not provide it. This is, in my opinion, one of our country’s cruelest human rights violations because it was done in the name of civil liberties and during a call for more humane treatment for those “warehoused” in state hospitals. Where are these former patients now? They are in prison, homeless, or they languish in adult homes (a practice which the Supreme Court just declared unconstitutional).
We can debate how we can pay for the long-term care that people like my brother Paul need, but as you said, this does not mean they don’t need long-term care. Some people with severe brain disorders recover, some don't, just like any other illness. All I ask is that one criterion be used to discern whether or not someone is in need of long-term care, no matter what the illness is called or in which organ of the body it originates. Medicaid eligibility should be determined by the individual's ability to pay, not where they are being treated.
I say we are already paying a high price for this social experiment gone bad through the increased burdens on the police, emergency rooms, local hospital psych wards, social service agencies, and our judicial system, not to mention people’s lives. The states' budgets were balanced on the backs of people like my brother and the communities in which they live.
Paul died to save the state of
Please, repeal the IMD Exclusion as part of the health care reform package. You have the power, right now, to change the course of treatment for the people, like Paul, who have no voice in this debate.