WASHINGTON - Mental health advocates praised Wednesday's landmark vote by the U.S. House approving addiction and treatment legislation named for the late Sen. Paul Wellstone.
The bill, which would require insurers to cover mental health in the same way as physical ailments, had long been championed by the Minnesota Democrat, who died in a 2002 plane crash.
"This is a very historic moment," said his son David Wellstone, who addressed a Capitol Hill rally that included former First Lady Rosalynn Carter and singer-turned-activist Carole King. "This legislation is very close to my heart."
The 268-148 House vote sets the stage for negotiations with the Senate, which passed a less stringent version of the bill last year. Key backers of the House bill, including Reps. Jim Ramstad, R-Minn., and Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., say it provides greater access to treatment for people with addiction and mental health problems.
"This is not just another public policy issue," said Ram stad, a recovering alcoholic. "It's a matter of life and death for millions of Americans."
Industry groups that back the Senate version argue that the House bill would go too far in mandating expensive treatments and drive up health insurance premiums. They portray the Senate bill, which passed unanimously, as a better compromise among the business, insurance and mental health communities.
The Senate bill was sponsored by Kennedy's father, Massachusetts Democrat Edward Kennedy, along with GOP Sens. Pete Domenici of New Mexico and Mike Enzi of Wyoming. The younger Kennedy will negotiate with his father on a compromise.
Advocates of the Paul Wellstone Mental Health and Addiction Equity Act say it would end the stigma of mental illness by treating it on a par with physical maladies. "We're no longer going to allow people to languish in the shadows," said Kennedy, who has had his own bout with an addiction to painkillers.
While the congressional debate is far from over, champions of the Wellstone bill celebrated the House vote as the culmination of 12 years of activism on the issue.
Said Ramstad: "We know that Paul Wellstone is smiling down on us today."
Kevin Diaz • 202-408-2753