Rep. Kennedy Says Mental Health, Drug History Makes Him Stronger Advocate

Rep. Patrick Kennedy says his personal struggles to recover from depression, alcoholism and substance abuse have made him a more compelling advocate in Congress for improved mental health care coverage.

The Rhode Island Democrat, a son of Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, played a leading role winning House passage last month on a bill to expand coverage for people needing mental health and addiction treatment.

"My own story gave a lot of my colleagues a comfort level to tell me their own stories, privately," he said in a recent telephone interview with The Associated Press. "In the process it tied them into this debate personally in ways I think that gave traction to this legislation early on."

Kennedy, 40, crashed his car into a Capitol barricade in the middle of the night nearly two years ago, and agreed to a plea deal on a charge of driving under the influence of prescription drugs. He speaks publicly about his own recovery in hopes of ending the stigma of mental illness that prevents people from seeking treatment.

Kennedy, who has battled addiction since high school, said he's pleased his father can "see now at this stage of the game that some of my perceived darker moments turned out to be the silver linings in this great battle that I fought."

Those darker moments, he said, "gave me a platform and a credibility and a stature and a human quality in the House as a spokesperson on this issue that allowed me to cut through a lot of the white noise that insulates members from really facing these issues and addressing them honestly when they're being lobbied so heavily by special interests."

Kennedy and his father are on different sides as the House and Senate try to forge a compromise on expanding coverage for people needing mental health and addiction treatment. Big health care, insurance and pharmaceutical interests are waging a high-stakes fight in Congress over what has come to be known as mental health parity.

The younger Kennedy helped lead the push for the House bill that would require equal health insurance coverage for mental and physical illnesses when policies cover both.

His father was instrumental in winning Senate approval last September of a narrower version of the bill with support from business and insurance groups.

The elder Kennedy, D-Mass., has a reputation as one of the most skilled legislators in Congress, often working with Republicans to craft major bills during more than four decades in the Senate. He said he enjoys working with his son, despite their differing views.

"We're always in contact," the senator said. "We talk all the time. There are some important differences, you don't minimize those ... We still have a ways to go, but I think it's important that we are making progress."

The congressman hopes his father can help win GOP support for whatever compromise emerges.

"I am so glad my dad is there with me at the table, because if there's anybody who knows how to work with Republicans and can work as good a deal as possible to try to break this free ... it's my dad," he said.

The House bill says that if a plan provides mental health benefits, it must cover mental illnesses and addiction disorders listed in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is used by mental health professionals.

That bill, the "Paul Wellstone Mental Health and Addiction Equity Act of 2007," was named for the late Minnesota Democratic senator who championed the issue for years and who was killed in a 2002 plane crash. It was sponsored by Kennedy and Jim Ramstad, R-Minn., a recovering alcoholic who is Kennedy's Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor.

Kennedy said the bill favored by his father does not go far enough in providing coverage for people who need it. The Senate bill gives insurers more leeway on the types of mental disorders they would have to cover. It was a compromise reached after negotiations with businesses, the insurance industry and mental health advocates. Business and insurance groups had fought previous versions, arguing the proposals would drive up insurance costs.

Senator Kennedy, along with GOP Sens. Pete Domenici of New Mexico and Mike Enzi of Wyoming, sponsored the Senate bill.

The White House has said it favors the Senate bill because it addresses the need to treat mental illnesses with the same urgency as physical illnesses, but wouldn't significantly raise health care costs.