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Ohio, New York Governors Sign Mental Health Parity Bills

One of the last bills Governor Bob Taft signed before leaving office was the Mental Health Parity law. The bill was sponsored by Senator Bob Spada, who called it the most important piece of legislation to pass the General Assembly since he became a member in 1999. Senator Spada has reasons for such hyperbole. For him, the law was personal.

WKSU's Dave Pignanelli reports:

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It was 2003, and Jim Spada was very nervous. He had just flown to Texas to meet his girlfriend's parents for the very first time:

She was telling her family that we were going to get married and things like that. I wasn't really ready for that and it was really stressful and I was trying to block that out:

Jim remembers only one other time where he felt the same way. It was during his last few weeks of college. He had pushed himself to graduate in three years with a four year degree. He remembers a friend quipping that he seemed manic. But this trip was even worse with what he describes as bizarre behaviour:

The kicker was when I just laid down and played dead. You know, like when you see a bear in the forest, you know, you lie down and play dead. I saw her dad and he was talking to me and I just laid down and played dead. He didn't know what to do and he just kind of left the room.

By this time, the parents on whom he was supposed to make a good impression thought he was on drugs, like LSD or some other hallucinogen. A member of his girlfriends family suggested that he go to the hospital. He resisted, but an ambulance arrived and transported him to the emergency room of a Texas hospital. The staff did not treat him as a mental patient. They, along with hospital security, treated him as though he were a drug addict. He spent the night there, still unsure what was going on. Jim said he didn't think he belonged there, so when the moment was right, he left his room and made a phone call:

And that's a call parents don't want to get.

State Senator Bob Spada is Jim's father.

And I go, what in the heck happened. You know, what's going on. Did he take some drugs? Did he do something else? You just don't know.

Senator Spada caught a flight to Dallas and met his son at the hospital. By this time, Jim had been transferred to the mental health facility but had not yet been diagnosed.

He wasn't the same kid that I had known before. And I can remember talking to him before he left and he was living on his own. He a college graduate. He's a very bright young man and it was just a strange situation. It was very uncomfortable and not knowing what to do or where to turn, we came back to Cleveland and we're lucky enough to get to University Hospitals and speak to the chief of that psychiatric department and then we started our understanding of and learning about mental illnesses.

It took between 5 and 6 months to put a name on what Jim was experiencing...Doctors determined he was manic or bipolar and the treatment began. Then, the hospital bills began to arrive. Senator Spada says it was then that he noticed that his insurance was not providing the coverage he thought it should. And that's when he went to work. He drafted a bill that would mandate that insurance companies would treat mental health the same as physical health.

I've heard stories of individuals in Ohio are putting their children up as wards of the state because they can't afford some of their medical care. And can you imagine such a thing as that?

What was then known as Senate Bill 116 did not sail through the legislature. Opposition came from the small business community. Keith Ashmus is a past chairman of the Council of smaller enterprises, the small business group known as COSE. He says small businesses had concerns over two concepts in the legislation:

one is the direct cost of this, which COSE was concerned about this enough to have an actuary engaged and made a calculation that the overall cost of this particular mandate would be 2 "point 6 percent in addition to any other costs or increases, just for mental health parity would create and increase in costs of 2 point six percent. That is the amount that an employer pays into the insurance system? That would be the additional premium cost per employee. The second main thing is that any type of legislation like this does not affect those costs paid by Medicare, Medicaid, or by large businesses that have self-insurance and therefore are exempt from any state regulations.

Ashmus says it is unfair to mandate something for which only smaller businesses will bear the burden. He says COSE position is to fix the entire health insurance system, rather than do it by piecemeal mandates. Regardless, the law takes effect in September and small business will have to cope. Ashmus says there are several ways businesses will do this:

one is to pass the costs on to the customer, that the employer has greater costs and prefers to pass the costs on to the employee and that is complicated in that you also have a raise in the minimum wage...so you might have actually have more incentive to pass more of the health care costs onto employees and then there's sort of the Draconian way of just dropping coverage.

Jim Spada brought his story of mental illness to both the Ohio House and Senate, testifying before the respective health committees. He told them that without insurance parity, he would be spending 500 dollars a month in prescriptions and most likely living on his dad's couch. He says with the insurance, he is succeeding in his job at Bank of America, pays taxes and lives on his own. Looking back, he can laugh now, especially when recalling how he tried to convince his girlfriend's parents in 2003 that he was not on LSD:

It was really bizarre. My brother is in the other room and starts laughing because I'm so frustrated and she's telling me that my family thinks you're on LSD and this and that and I'm like I'm not on LSD, I'm not on drugs, I'm crazy.

Needless to say, that relationship did not last. I'm Dave Pignanelli, 89.7 WKSU.

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