FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.
Millions of Americans depend on emergency rooms for care because they don't have insurance. But what if insurance doesn't cover what ails you?
Jim Ramstad is a U.S. congressman and a recovering alcoholic who's been sober for two decades. The Minnesota Republican says insurers are discriminating against the 26 million Americans who suffer from chemical addictions by refusing to pay for treatment. He hopes to change that with a new bill he's co-sponsoring.
Representative JIM RAMSTAD (Republican, Minnesota): Insurance companies are erecting barriers to people in health plans, such as higher co-payments, higher deductibles, limited treatment stays - barriers that don't exist for other diseases. And if you accept categorization of the American Medical Association back in 1956 that chemical addiction is a disease, then you can't justify the discrimination.
CHIDEYA: You have you own history of alcoholism, I understand. And it's far in your past, but would you have had an easier time letting go of your addiction if would had more help?
Rep. RAMSTAD: Well, I was one of lucky ones. Back on July 31st, 1981 I woke up in a jail cell in South Dakota under arrest for disorderly conduct as a result of my last alcoholic blackout. And because of the access I had to treatment I was able to get on to the road to recovery, and I've been sober now for 25 years and one month. But only because of that access I had to treatment and the fellowship of other recovering people am I sober and alive today.
CHIDEYA: You're a Republican. You've named this after kind of a renegade Democrat, Paul Wellstone, and you're partnering with another Democrat - a Kennedy. Are your colleagues in the Republican Party saying, what the heck is Jim Ramstad doing?
Rep. RAMSTAD: Not at all. I think most people realize that alcoholism, drug addiction and mental illness are not partisan issues. They affect people of both parties, people from all walks of life, every socioeconomic status, men and women. So this is certainly not a partisan issue, this equitable treatment act that we're trying to pass here in Congress.
CHIDEYA: The insurance industry, and we've been doing a lot of healthcare issues, is mainly, not exclusively, a for-profit industry. What is this going to do to the market forces on healthcare if you start adding this in?
Rep. RAMSTAD: Well, first of all, we have all the empirical data in the world to show. The most recent comes from the RAND Corporation study that shows the cost efficacy of chemical dependency treatment. The average premium increase due to full treatment therapy would be less than one half of one percent. In other words, for the price of a cheap cup of coffee per month we could treat 16 million alcoholics and addicts who are presently in health plans.
Sixteen million people suffering the ravages of addiction right now, in health plans but unable to get treatment. And then of course we need to also provide greater access to treatment for the 10 million alcoholics and drug addicts in the Medicaid program. But it's a red herring that the insurance companies and our opponents to suggest that this would increase could cost significantly. That's simply not true. And again, we have all the studies to show that.
CHIDEYA: You know, finally, you told The New York Times, if we could turn Congress into one big AA meeting where people would be required to say what they mean and mean what they say, it would be a lot better Congress. What did you mean by that?
Rep. RAMSTAD: I meant if we were to rely on the truth and instead of spin-doctors, if we would rely on civil arguments instead of all the partisan bickering and the attack politics; I meant if we restored decency and civility and comity and collegiality and collaboration in the House, it would be a lot better place.
CHIDEYA: Okay. I have a final, final question. I'm kind of bad at the final question thing. I just think that for a lot of families, you know, including my own, addiction is something that's real. What would happen in this country if people didn't have to be ashamed of seeking treatment?
Rep. RAMSTAD: Well, Navy Captain Dr. Ron Smith(ph), who's head of the Chemical Dependency Treatment Program for the navy at Bethesda Naval Medical Center here in Washington, has said many times that for every person who's treated we really treat four people. That's the average number of people who are directly impacted by one person's disease. So really if we were to treat 16 million people as this (unintelligible) legislation contemplates, we would really be affecting in a positive way many more people.
And so there would be children that wouldn't have to take their Ritalin. There would be fathers that wouldn't be going off to jail and prison - 82 percent of our inmates in jails prisons today are there because of drugs and/or alcohol. There would be marriages saved, careers saved. Instead of shattered dreams there would be dreams realized. We could make a major difference in this country were we to extend access to treatment to more people through this legislation
I really believe this is America's number one public health crisis, really, when you think that last year 150,000 Americans died as a direct result of chemical addiction and 275,000 Americans last years were denied access to treatment; people in health plans discriminated against, treatment center doors were slammed shot on their faces. That's wrong and it's also not the cost effective way to approach this problem.
CHIDEYA: Well, Congressman Ramstad, thank you.
Rep. RAMSTAD: Thank you, Farai.
CHIDEYA: U.S. Congressman Jim Ramstad, who's a Republican, represents Minnesota's 3rd District.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.