Constituents from across Wisconsin descended on the Capitol Wednesday, calling for mental health cases to be insured at the same level as physical ones.
Democratic Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton and other state lawmakers spearheaded a push for mental health parity, urging legislators to make the issue a priority.
�This is something that people have been trying to move forward for a long time in Wisconsin,� Lawton said. �We�re one of eight states that don�t have it. But it seems to me that for the first time we have a very broad-based coalition, and it reaches across the state and across every sector.�
Suicide rates are often a measure of mental health, according to Lawton, and suicide is the second leading cause of death for Wisconsinites between the ages of 15 and 34.
�When we talk about access to mental health care for children and young people, it is literally a matter of life and death,� Lawton said. �But it�s also a matter of whether or not they will attain the academic achievement they could and be able to forge a promising outlook for their own lives.�
Lawton also said mental health parity is a strategy to increase the size of the workforce, productivity and employee retention, and to reduce absenteeism.
The change would also dramatically bring down the health care costs for the employers because people with untreated mental illnesses have more than twice the medical costs in a year of someone without them, Lawton added.
�I can�t see how we can improve Wisconsin�s economic outlook if we continue to sideline so much talent simply because of lack of access to mental health care,� she said.
The current maximum requirement for mental health coverage is $7,000, and according to Rep. Sheryl Albers, R-Reedsberg, that number was set in 1985 and has not changed since.
Albers said $7,000 in services in 1985 is bound to cost more in 2008, adding the number adjusted for today would be about $20,000.
�We know people that have mental health issues often end up on unemployment,� Albers said. �We need to keep people with these issues in the workforce and a good employee.�
The Senate version of the bill putting mental health parity into practice is currently on its way to a joint legislative committee.
�We need the Assembly to agree with us to pass that out of the Joint Finance Committee because it costs money,� said Carrie Lynch, spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker, D-Weston. �We would have to get them to agree with us that it�s a priority.�
However, the bill is facing roadblocks in the Assembly, according to Albers and Lawton, because Speaker Mike Huebsch, R-West Salem, would direct it to a committee chaired by Rep. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa, who opposes the plan.
�Her staff has indicated to me time and time again, and to others, that she would not hear the bill,� Albers said.
Lawton called on Decker and Vukmir to move the legislation.
�Now, what we have to do is hope that those who have put themselves in a position to be responsible to the public, who have accepted the public�s trust, � We need to be sure that this bill gets a hearing because when it does and when their colleagues must vote on it, their constituents will be there to say, �We insist you vote yes,�� Lawton said.
Requests to Vukmir�s office for comment Wednesday were not returned as of press time.