Oct. 24, 2003
Tribute to the Late Senator Paul Wellstone
Mr. KERRY. Madam President, I rise today in memory of my dear friend and colleague, Senator Paul Wellstone. A year ago today, the Senateindeed, the Nationsuffered the tragic passing of Senator Wellstone. With his loss, his efforts to establish full mental health parity were cut short. It is now time to build on Senator Wellstone's historic achievements in this policy area and put an end to the discrimination faced by individuals with mental illness once and for all.
I was a proud cosponsor of the landmark Mental Health Parity Act, which Congress passed in 1996 at Senator Wellstone's urging. This law establishes parity for annual and lifetime dollar limit coverage for mental health treatment. While its enactment marked an important victory in the fight to provide greater mental health treatment benefits, it is time to take the additional steps needed to truly provide mental health parity for all Americans.
The Senator Paul Wellstone Mental Health Equitable Treatment Act of 2003 (S. 486) requires health insurance coverage to provide equal coverage of mental health benefits as it does for medical and surgical benefits. This legislation will improve access to care for individuals who are living with mental illness by closing the loopholes used by insurance companies to limit coverage. I am a proud cosponsor of this important legislation. It should be the law. I call on Senate leadership to bring this bill up for a vote without delay as a fitting tribute to the memory of Senator Wellstone.
I also urge the Senate to address the current discrimination in Medicare that seriously restricts seniors' access to mental health benefits. Under Medicare, seniors and people with disabilities pay a 20 percent copayment for all Part B services except for mental health care services, for which patients are assessed a 50 percent copayment. In other words, when seniors visit a cardiologist for heart disease, an endocrinologist for diabetes treatment, or an oncologist for cancer treatment, they pay a 20 percent copayment for the cost of the visit. If, however, a senior citizen or a person with disabilities seeks treatment for a debilitating and possibly life threatening mental illness, they pay for half of the cost of care out of their own pockets. Consequently, Medicare beneficiaries, many of whom are on fixed incomes, face an insurmountable barrier in seeking treatment that could substantially improve or prolong their lives because of a discriminatory policy that treats mental health services and medical services differently.
We need to put an end to what is essentially discrimination by diagnosis. I, along with my colleague Senator SNOWE, introduced legislation that phases down the 50 percent copayment for mental health care services to 20 percent over 6 years. This legislation, entitled the Medicare Mental Health Copayment Equity Act (S. 853), will establish parity in the Medicare program and improve access to care for our senior and disabled beneficiaries living with mental illnesses.
In the memory of my dear friend, Senator Wellstone, I urge my colleagues to consider this legislation, in addition to the Senator Paul Wellstone Mental Health Equitable Treatment Act of 2003. Together, these two bills will eliminate the stigma of mental heath and establish mental health parity in both the private and public sectors. I ask for your support and hope that together we can fulfill Senator Wellstone's passionate vision by ending mental health discrimination for all individuals.