Rep. Patrick Kennedy on Fighting Addiction

After crashing his car on Capitol Hill last May, Rep. Patrick Kennedy entered a rehabilitation program for treatment of depression and addiction. Now the Rhode Island Democrat is advocating for drug treatment, including a new “parity” bill he introduced March 7 that would require group health plans to offer the same coverage for mental illness and addiction treatment as they offer for other diseases. Kennedy recently spoke with NEWSWEEK's Eve Conant about his experiences and how they have influenced his work. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: You recently hosted a screening of the new HBO documentary "Addiction." Why?
Patrick Kennedy:
The HBO documentary and my efforts at being so public are both part of a common effort to let people know that they're not alone. People share the same challenges everywhere in the country. This documentary shows that people in our own communities, and people nationwide, are facing this. It's chipping away at stigma, which is the biggest barrier to our political efforts in passing civil-rights legislation that treats those with this hidden disease equally and causes the shame that holds people hostage from getting life-saving treatment for themselves or family members.

You have personally dealt with addiction issues around not only prescription drugs but cocaine as well, right?
Yes. If you suffer the disease of addiction or alcoholism, it doesn't matter which mind or mood-altering substance it is. I've also been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Are these personal experiences the reason why you've decided to push policy on this?
I introduced the parity bill in my first term in office in 1995 when I first came to Washington. I was the primary sponsor; back then nobody else wanted that role. That's how popular it was. I had already been public about my treatment during high school. This is an insidious disease and relapse happens. I also have chronic asthma—that's a chronic illness, too. I get ongoing treatment for my asthma just as I do for my addiction. Ten months ago, because I have health insurance, I was able to get inpatient treatment for a relapse of addiction to pain medications.

Do you mean the incident last year when you crashed your car late one night on the Hill? Is that relapse part of your passion for the parity bill now?

Yes and yes. If anything, it publicized my struggles and for me, in a beneficial way, it allowed me to have more people come to me and identify their own struggles and not feel as alone. It was a blessing for me to have been outed by the publicity. Initially, I thought it was the end of the world. But it was the inverse. Now, wherever I go, I have friends in every corner, fellow travelers on the road to recovery. Whenever I'm at an event now, I don't feel so alone.

Can you tell us more about your political efforts on the addiction front?
I've been hosting a series of parity hearings across the country because there is a need to end discrimination against insurance coverage for those with addiction and alcoholism. This is part of an effort to pass legislation this year that will cover treatment by insurance companies for alcoholism and chemical dependency the same way every other physical illness is: with no higher copayments, deductibles or premiums. Right now, if you have mental illness and chemical dependency like alcoholism—you must pay higher copays, deductibles and premiums.

Is there any specific reason given for that?
The reason for that is simply stigma; it's not based in any science that says there is any physical, biological or genetic difference in this disease. In fact, one of the good things about the HBO series is that it underscores the science of alcoholism and addiction and breaks down the genetic, biological and physiological basis for this disease. It helps gives us a greater understanding that, as a nation, we need to address this as a health issue. If you look at our Web site, there's more information on the bill and my field hearings, but there are also opportunities there for citizens themselves to become cosponsors of the Equity Act.

HBO's "Addiction" is free press for your bill. Won't a TV series do more for your cause than any political meetings or hearings could?
This is so important on so many levels. Stigma, which the series is fighting, is our No. 1 enemy. This stigma blocks efforts to pass legislation in Congress and leads to the practice of double standards. It prevents people with insurance from availing themselves of help because of the shame of seeking treatment. Too many people see themselves as the problem, that what they have is not a disease; it's a character flaw.

One of the particularly interesting parts of the documentary talks about topiramate, a drug that appears to decrease the urge to drink alcohol. What did you think of those findings?
We need to put more investment into brain and addiction research. Mental illness is the single largest cause of lost workdays in the country, even more than cancer or cardiovascular disease. Not only is this research in our enlightened self-interest, but if we are a commerce-driven society as we profess to be, one of "me generation" boomers, it seems there would be interest in making ourselves happy. I don't see why there is not greater demand to improve the way our brains can work to end the suffering of so many Americans who are imprisoned with this disease. There are 26 million Americans with alcoholism and addiction. There are 54 million with mental illnesses. Yet people don't want to say they have a congressman with addiction problems or bipolar issues. And we don't get pressured by our constituents; no one wants to admit they have these problems.