In the immediate aftermath of the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain Gov. Cuomo issued a press release about new funding to address the rising rate of suicide.
He stated: “Two high-profile suicides this week put mental illness front and center, but while those names were the ones in the press, every day there are thousands of New Yorkers who struggle with suicidal thoughts, and we must do everything we can to support them. Depression does not discriminate. It affects every part of society and people from all walks of life.”
I applaud the Governor for bringing this matter to light. He stated, “Depression does not discriminate.” Nevertheless, health insurers that do not comply with federal parity law, denying timely access to care, do discriminate. When New York State government does not enforce this law, they aid and abet discrimination against the “thousands of New Yorkers,” who the Governor referred to as those “who struggle with suicidal thoughts”.
The difficulty people have accessing mental health and addiction care is not simply a matter of stigma. It is a matter of discrimination. This is a civil rights issue that an announcement of new funding alone will not solve.
On December 15, 2017, North Shore Child and Family Guidance Center held a press conference at its headquarters in Roslyn Heights and issued the results of a research study – Project Access that we conducted in collaboration with LIU Post Department of Social Work. In this year-long study, hundreds of Long Islanders were surveyed about their experiences attempting to obtain help for mental health and addiction problems. Of the 650 Long Islanders who took part in the survey, almost half said that it was more difficult finding help for mental health or substance abuse problems than finding help for physical illnesses, nearly 40 percent said that their insurance company did not have an adequate number of providers and two-thirds said that their insurance company was not helpful to them in finding a suitable provider for themselves or a loved one.
NY State Senator Todd Kaminsky, who attended the December 15th press conference, stated that the findings were “Damning.” In a bipartisan effort, Kaminsky and Senator Elaine Phillips wrote to the Department of Financial Services (DFS) on January 9, 2018 citing the Project Access study and requesting “a thorough investigation to determine why insurance companies are not being held accountable for network adequacy.” Network adequacy is the part of the federal parity law that states that health insurers who cover mental health and addiction care must have an adequate number of providers in their network. Many more people wrote directly to Gov. Cuomo, requesting the same.
Almost five months later Scott Fischer, Executive Deputy Superintendent for Insurance, a division of DFS, responded in writing to the Senators. Fischer wrote: “DFS’s review of the various networks has confirmed that each of the insurance companies in Long Island exceeds the standards for mental health and substance use providers, for the purpose of the commercial products sold outside of New York State.”
Translation: There is no problem. There is nothing more to do. This does not square with the results of Project Access.
Health insurers and government ignoring federal parity law is discrimination. When it comes to suicide prevention: access delayed, is access denied.
Discrimination deserves a place alongside stigma when the conversation turns to access to care. It’s a matter of civil rights.
Long after the tragic deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain fade from the front pages, the lack of compliance and enforcement of federal parity law will persist and the thousands of people that the Governor spoke of in his press release will still be unable to access care.
The North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center provides comprehensive mental health services for children from birth through 24 and their families. To find out more, visit www.northshorechildguidance.org. To read more about Project Access go to: www.northshorechildguidance.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/north-shore-project-access.pdf