One must admire the Kennedy audacity. It is not enough that Patrick Kennedy, the Democratic congressman from Rhode Island, remained in office after driving under the influence and crashing his car into a vehicle barrier on Capitol Hill one year ago this month.
It is not enough that he gave an unlikely explanation for the incident — his second “traffic problem” in three weeks — and then ducked away into a rehab clinic to escape the spotlight. Nor is it enough even that he ran for Congress again — and won — despite evidence of a botched cover-up and witnesses putting him at the popular Hawk n’ Dove bar earlier that evening.
No, Patrick Kennedy had to crown himself with irony by testifying last Tuesday morning before the Senate Health committee on the topic of substance abuse and mental-health care. No one at the hearing wanted to touch the tense irony of Kennedy’s presence. Republicans asked him no questions after his brief, wonkish statement, and afterward reporters did not dare broach the topic.
It was pure Kennedy chutzpah, and it worked. Although the committee chairman (Senator Dad, D., Mass.) could not be present to chair the hearing, he would have been proud.
In his defense, Patrick Kennedy has worked on mental-health issues for years. He can hardly be faulted for pushing legislation in which he believes. But surely there could have been a better witness for last week’s hearing than the man who last year turned drug rehab into a joke.
Neither mental illness nor substance abuse are funny topics — many of us have experience with these conditions, either personally or through friends or family. No reasonable person doubts that they are serious conditions that require treatment. But Kennedy’s pioneering use of rehab to generate sympathy and escape media attention after his incident last May was a farce. It diminished public respect for substance-abuse care as a legitimate medical treatment, giving rise to the joke that rehab is “the last refuge of scoundrels.” It created an unfortunate example for Reps. Bob Ney (R., Ohio) and Mark Foley (R., Fla.), who would later duck into rehab when their respective personal scandals exploded — to say nothing of celebrities who have very recently done the same.
Kennedy added more fuel to this fire four months after his incident, as he was speaking out for “mental-health parity” legislation, requiring equivalent insurance coverage for mental illness as for other ailments. “I have a mental illness,” he declared in a September 2006 press conference. “I refuse to be told that my mental illness is worth any less than my asthma.”
Extra Coverage In Kennedy’s case, the disturbing implication is that he was no more responsible for endangering people’s lives and wrecking his car (telling the police, “I’m headed to the Capitol to take a vote…”) than for his breathing condition. But the topic of mental-health parity merits a more serious hearing than its wayward congressional sponsor would indicate. It enjoys broad bipartisan support — including that of President Bush and many conservatives in Congress. But it also represents one more step away from a free-market system of health care. It will make health insurance more expensive for everyone.
“I’m fortunate that I had health insurance,” Kennedy told me last week of his rehab experience. “There are too many Americans who don’t have the same health insurance as I do.”
The problem is that his mental-health parity bill would force most Americans to pay for the same insurance he has, or else go without. Current law, passed in 1996, forbids insurers from setting lower annual and lifetime dollar caps for mental illness than they do for other treatments. But most insurance companies still place stricter limits and require higher co-pays for mental-health treatments. The new proposal would forbid such practices, which mental-health advocates consider discriminatory.