Rep. Kennedy: Psychiatrists Have Key Role in Health Reform

TORONTO — Mental health providers are a key part in fixing the broken United States health care system, according to former U.S. Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, who accepted the American Psychiatric Association (APA) Patient Advocacy Award at the American Psychiatric Association Annual Meeting

“Psychiatrists ought to be excited,” said Kennedy. “You’re the answer to the challenge that ails the health care system as it exists now.”

Kennedy spent 16 years in the House of Representatives and was the lead sponsor of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008, which provides mental health care to tens of millions of Americans who were previously denied care. He is also the founder of the Kennedy Forum on Community Mental Health and the co-founder of One Mind, a national coalition seeking new treatments for psychiatric diseases.

“No other specialty in medicine — no other general practitioner out there can safely call themselves a health care provider and not understand the basic elements of how to identify and help get treatment for those who have mental illness and addiction,” said Kennedy.

With the passing of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010, health care reimbursements are now based on how people are doing in their “real” lives, according to Kennedy. “So, what’s going to make the biggest difference in reducing hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes? Mental health.”

Kennedy went on to explain how politics, not public support, passed the Mental Health Parity Act. “No one wanted to be associated with mental health or addiction,” admitted Kennedy. Policy makers were afraid of increased media scrutiny over claims of mental illness — whether they admitted to mental illness and addiction or not.

Despite the politics that, ultimately, helped pass the Mental Health Parity Act, Kennedy expressed gratefulness over the timing of the bill’s passing. “It was fortuitous that the parity bill was passed in 2008 and the ACA in 2010,” explained Kennedy. “As you recall, we had the public option negotiated away because all we had to win health care for all by any means. If parity had been part of the bill, I guarantee it would have been negotiated away.”

A critical issue that needs to be addressed is a lack of knowledge and information surrounding mental health and addiction care, and how to integrate it into the overall health care system. “These are concepts that are foreign to our health care system in terms of how to understand them,” said Kennedy. “Yet, we are in a world that is going to measure the effectiveness of health care in how they are doing in their real lives.”

Psychiatrists have a crucial role in addressing the barriers to mental health and addiction care for all patients. “Not only are you expert clinicians in mental health and addiction treatment, you are leaders in the house of medicine on these issues,” Kennedy told members of the APA.

“You need to take seriously the responsibility [you] have to change the system not only for the benefit of your own patients, but the benefit of this country.”


Kennedy PJ. The Open Warmth of Community Concern and Capability: Achieving President Kennedy’s Vision.” Presented at: APA 2015. May 16-20, 2015; Toronto, Canada.