Fighting for Mental Help
Rep. Olman in 8-year House Battle for Parity

COLUMBUS - Last month, state Rep. Lynn Olman bought 25 videos of the film A Beautiful Mind and gave them to members of the House Health Committee.

"By viewing this film, it is my hope that you will better understand my passionate advocacy for mental health issues and, more importantly, that commitment might be transferred to you," wrote Mr. Olman, a Maumee Republican.

Mr. Olman's use of the 2001 Academy Award-winning film - which portrayed mathematician John Nash's struggle with schizophrenia - is his latest effort in an eight-year battle to convince the legislature to embrace "mental health parity."

Since 1996, Mr. Olman has sponsored a bill each legislative session to require health insurance policies to offer mental health and alcohol and drug addiction treatment coverage equal to other covered medical conditions.

All have died in committee in the face of opposition from the insurance industry, the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, and the Ohio chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business.

He said after his unsuccessful effort to try to add his bill to the state budget in April, several fellow legislators told him they were "sympathetic to diseases of the brain, but they did not see alcohol or drugs as a disease of the brain but rather a choice."

Mr. Olman said he agrees that people initially choose to use alcohol or drugs, but he said "by chemical makeup and chromosomal makeup, some people are more susceptible than others" to alcoholism or drug addiction. He said he has hope that a new version of the bill that excludes alcohol and drug treatment coverage may pass the House Health Committee next month. He said state Rep. Greg Jolivette, the Hamilton Republican who is the committee's chairman, has indicated that he would allow a vote to be taken.

The bill would require the same coverage as medical conditions for those with seven severe mental illnesses: panic disorder, bipolar disorder, major depression, schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, paranoia, and other psychotic disorders.

Ohio and Michigan are among 15 states without some form of a "mental health parity" law. Legislation similar to Mr. Olman's is pending in the Michigan legislature.

Mr. Olman said his goal is for the Ohio House of Representatives to approve the bill this year. If so, he and his allies would try next year to win Senate approval. If a bill isn't shipped to Gov. Bob Taft for his signature by December, 2004, Mr. Olman will have to hand the issue on to another legislator. Because of term limits, he can't run for re-election next year.

Mr. Olman's bill would move services for mental illnesses from the definition of "supplemental health care services" in state law to "basic health care services." The problem is that many insurance plans require higher deductibles, large co-payments, limited outpatient visits, and lower lifetime caps in treatment of mental illnesses, Mr. Olman said.

But William Fitzgibbon, director of the Ohio Business Council, said small and medium-sized businesses that fully insure their employees would bear the "brunt of these costs" if Mr. Olman's bill becomes law. That's because large self-insured businesses and government plans would be exempt from the mental health insurance "mandate," Mr. Fitzgibbon said.

"We respect Rep. Olman's passion, but we'd rather have free-market solutions," he said.

But advocates for the mentally ill who have tried for 18 years to get the legislature to approve the "mental health parity" bill say there are other ways to calculate costs.

"The cost is many productive citizens have been forced out of their jobs and into the public [health care] system," said Terry Russell, executive director of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill of Ohio.

In 2001, a study by Milliman USA commissioned by the nonpartisan Ohio Legislative Service Commission found that equal insurance treatment for mental illness and drug and alcohol addiction would lead to an average 1 to 1.5 percent increase in health insurance premiums.

Over the last eight years, many have observed that it is unusual for a Republican legislator who owns an insurance agency to rail against "discrimination" in health care policies against mental health care treatment. "He's a hero to us," NAMI's Mr. Russell said. . "He's a fairly conservative Republican and he's been a champion for us. "

Mr. Olman said he first became interested in the issue in 1995 when he attended a meeting in Toledo of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.

"I expected to be cordial, listen intently, and then politely excuse myself to the next meeting. I wound up staying the whole morning," he recalled.

Mr. Olman said he decided to fight for legislation after learning that those with severe mental illnesses who don't receive a diagnosis and treatment have "very little likelihood" of holding a job.

"They would be collecting welfare benefits, and then the state would pick up their insurance through Medicaid, both of which cost you and me, the taxpayers. I could not understand at that time why that bigger notion should be understood so much by liberal Democrats and not by conservative Republicans," he said.

Mr. Olman said a few years ago, he made a connection that gives him a personal stake in the issue.

In 1984, Mr. Olman's brother, Kurt, committed suicide at his Maumee home. After researching mental health issues and hearing from others who experienced the suicide of a family member, Mr. Olman said he believes his brother suffered from severe depression and possibly bipolar disorder.

"He was a real estate agent and he had huge highs, and when there were failures, he would really crash," Mr. Olman said. "When you have no background in the area of mental illness, you don't know what to look for."

Mr. Olman said he has received positive comments from Health Committee members after he gave them copies of A Beautiful Mind, paid for through his campaign fund.

Some said they suspected the video related to mental illness, but said they were puzzled until the end why Mr. Olman had sent them a copy.

State Rep. Jim Hoops (R., Napoleon) was among the committee members who received the videotape, but he said he has seen it twice. He said he is "still open" to Mr. Olman's bill but is leaning against it.

"It's an issue out there, but by doing this do we create other insurance issues as far as employers being able to insure their employees because of all of these requirements?" Mr. Hoops said.

Despite the uphill battle that may end in failure, Mr. Olman said he won't give up educating legislators and others about the need for "mental health parity" in insurance policies.

"It is a big deal for me and the 300,000 people who suffer from mental illness," he said.

All content © 2003 THE BLADE, TOLEDO, OHIO and may not be republished without permission.

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