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Editorial: Senate, help those suffering from mental illness

The U.S. House has passed its American Health Care Act of 2017, but the U.S. Senate is writing its own legislation to replace the Affordable Care Act. That buys time for careful, thoughtful change.

Republicans hold majorities in both bodies, but true to form, the Senate seems to be going about things with a bit more deliberation. That's partly due to the nature of the Senate and probably equally due to that fact that Democrats need only a few seats to take control back. Whatever the reason, this opens a door for mental health advocates to fight for benefits that a misunderstood, maligned and often hidden population desperately needs.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness wants to preserve Medicaid and insurance protections for those seeking mental health care.

The American Health Care Act would strip some $800 billion from Medicaid in the next 10 years, which NAMI says will result in slashes to vital mental health services. That's because the bill effectively would end the Medicaid expansion — "a lifeline for single adults with mental illness who fall through the cracks," as NAMI puts it.

Consider two ratios: one in three people covered by the Medicaid expansion lives with a mental health or substance use condition and one in five has some form of mental illness.

Those figures make it easier to wrap your thoughts around the big number: The Congressional Budget Office estimates that 24 million people will lose insurance for mental health care, pushing many of them into emergency rooms, behind jails or on the streets.

This is an alarming possibility when you realize that way too many individuals needing mental health services already spend days in the ER awaiting a bed in a bona fide treatment center.

The House bill has two major flaws when it comes to mental health. One, states including Minnesota and Wisconsin could let health plans drop coverage of mental health and substance use. Two, while people with pre-existing conditions couldn't be denied coverage, they would face much higher premiums than the mentally stable individual — something "Obamacare" made illegal.

This begs a question: How do you determine a pre-existing condition when many a patient has admitted to occasional anxiety or depression when feeling out that seemingly innocent health questionnaire before seeing a doctor?

Call your U.S. senators and ask them to stand up for people — your family, friend, neighbor and maybe someday you — who suffers mental illness.

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