Alcohol Addiction Is Like Asthma, Kennedy Says

By Nathan Burchfiel | July 7, 2008 | 8:31pm EDT

( - Rep. Patrick Kennedy, the Rhode Island Democrat who in May was treated for a prescription drug addiction, urged his colleagues in Congress Thursday to pass legislation requiring health insurance providers to cover drug and alcohol rehabilitation.

On May 4, 2006, Kennedy crashed his car into a security barrier near the U.S. Capitol while under the influence of prescription sleep medication.

In a press conference the next day, Kenney said he didn't remember getting out of bed that night, crashing into the barrier, or being stopped by police. He denied having consumed alcohol before the accident, although witnesses reported seeing him at a local bar.

Kennedy checked himself into the Mayo Clinic for rehabilitation shortly after the incident. In his public apology before entering the facility, he said he was "fighting a chronic condition, for which I'm taking full responsibility."

At a news conference in Washington, D.C., Thursday, Kennedy said his condition is one over which he has no control, comparing it to asthma and other physical illnesses.

"I have an addiction," he said. "I have a mental illness.

"Health insurance providers should pay for addiction treatment," Kennedy said, the same way they would cover other chronic conditions.

"I refuse to be told that my mental illness is worth any less than my asthma," Kennedy said, renewing earlier calls he has made for Congress to pass "mental health parity" legislation.

The lack of coverage for addiction rehabilitation," Kennedy said, is part of the "unfinished agenda for civil rights," adding that drug addicts and alcoholics are "discriminated against for an illness, a physical illness."

Kennedy is the sponsor of the Paul Wellstone Mental Health Equitable Treatment Act of 2005 (H.R. 1402), which would "provide for equal coverage of mental health benefits with respect to health insurance coverage."

The bill is named for the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, a Minnesota Democrat who fought for "mental health parity" during his time in the U.S. Senate. Wellstone died in a plane crash in 2002.

U.S. Rep. Jim Ramstad (R-Minn.), who is one of 228 co-sponsors of the House bill, said the legislation seeks to help "the 26 million Americans still out there suffering the ravages of drug and alcohol addiction."

Ramstad, a self-professed recovering alcoholic, called it a "national disgrace that 270,000 Americans were denied treatment last year alone."

"I'm alive and sober today only because of the grace of God and the access I had to treatment," Ramstad said. "There are too many people who don't have that access to treatment that Patrick and I had."

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