Former first lady Rosalynn Carter found herself shaking with excitement when she recently heard from Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius that the administration had issued a milestone mental health insurance rule, correcting “one of the greatest disappointments” of her life.
“We toured the country, found out what was needed, developed legislation and passed the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980. It passed through Congress one month before Jimmy, as he says was, ‘involuntarily retired’ from the White House,” Carter said. “[A]nd the incoming president put it on the shelf…”
Mental health parity refers to the requirement that health insurance companies treat mental health and substance abuse benefits no differently than physical health services. When the administration last month issued a final rule on the implementation of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 — an expansion of similar legislation passed in 1996 — the former first lady’s efforts were finally realized.
“As soon as I heard it, I started shaking, you know? I mean, this is 33 years after I called; I had wanted it, so it was exciting. It was emotional,” Carter said. “One of the people who worked with me in the White House … did a comparison of what we did in 1980 with the Affordable Care Act. It is almost identical.”
The former first lady also expressed her dismay at the lack of press coverage for mental health issues. “I got upset with the press too because they covered my mental health work my first few meetings I had, and then they never showed up anymore,” she said “[A]nd one of the things I wanted to do is bring attention to the issue and how terrible it was and what few services there were.”
“And so one day I was walking in the downstairs floor in the White House and met this woman who was one of the press people and I said, ‘You don’t ever cover my — nobody ever covers my meetings’ and she said, ‘Mrs. Carter, mental health is just not a sexy issue,’” she recounted.
Nonetheless, Carter hopes that her legacy expands beyond her role as the first lady to include her and her husbands work for The Carter Center. “I hope I have contributed something to mental health issues, and improved, a little bit, the lives of people living with mental health illnesses,” she said.