Opinion: We can’t afford to turn our backs on victims of mental illness

By Lacey Berumen

As a special committee of Congress takes on the important mission of reducing our countrys federal deficit, we must not lose sight of the need to protect some of our nations most vulnerable citizens those suffering from mental illness. Congress understandably will have to make some tough choices, but it also must set priorities.

On the heels of Mental Illness Awareness Week, observed earlier this month, the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Colorado is imploring Congress to oppose cuts to Medicare and Medicaid that could imperil the estimated 195,000 Coloradans living with mental illness. This special week, which is intended to raise awareness of the millions of Americans who struggle daily with mental illness, seems all the more relevant this year as Congress is poised to take action that could harm so many Coloradans.

The Congressional Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction or supercommittee, set up by federal debt-ceiling legislation that was recently enacted, must come up with an additional $1.2 trillion in deficit cuts by Nov. 23. All health care programs are potentially at risk, and Medicaid and Medicare may become prime targets.

The federal Medicare and Medicaid programs make it possible for many people with mental illness to get the essential treatments and medications they need. Clearly, if the supercommittee recommends deep cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, those victims of mental illness will become victims of the budget ax as well. We cannot let this happen; our society cannot in good conscience turn our backs on them.

Of course, we must rein in federal spending, but jeopardizing those with debilitating mental illness, to say nothing of the many elderly and underprivileged in general who are dependent on these two federal programs, wont solve the deficit crisis.

Moreover, safeguarding Medicare and Medicaid actually makes fiscal sense, especially amid federal budget constraints. That is because these cornerstones of American health coverage provide preventative care by allowing patients to fend off more serious, and costly, conditions later on.

According to a Harvard Medical School study, Medicare Part D alone reduces federal spending some $12 billion a year by giving elderly Americans access to medications that keep them out of the emergency room. The study found that Part D, which gives more than 29 million Americans access to prescription drugs at prices they can afford, has reduced other health care expenses especially costly inpatient care by about 10 percent per patient. Before the creation of Medicare Part D in 2006, many treatments were too expensive for as much as a third of the elderly population. While other health care costs continue to increase dramatically, Medicare Part D actually reduces health care expenditures.

Without Medicare Part D, many seniors would have to forego their prescriptions altogether. That would result in a greater burden on taxpayers for health care later.

That is why NAMI and 25 other national advocacy groups have sent a letter to members of the congressional supercommittee, urging it to protect Medicare specifically Part Ds prescription drug benefit as they look for ways to reduce federal spending before the November deadline.

Far from being a program our nation cannot afford, a cost container and lifesaver like Medicares Part D is one we cannot afford to do without.

For more information about deficit reduction efforts and what they mean for people living with serious mental illnesses, please visit: http://www.nami.org/Template.cfm?Section=Policy_News_and_Alerts&template=/ContentManagement/ContentDisplay.cfm&ContentID=124798.

Berumen is executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Colorado. NAMI Colorado is a grassroots, nonprofit organization providing support, education and advocacy for people living with mental illnesses and their families and friends.

Opinions communicated in Solutions represent the view of individual authors, and may not reflect the position of the University of Colorado Denver or the University of Colorado system.