Carters urge Obama to act on mental health law

The Obama administration should finalize regulations and implement the law on mental health benefits parity passed four years ago, former President Jimmy Carter and former First Lady Rosalynn Carter told an assembly of health journalists in Atlanta on Thursday.

The law requires health insurers to cover both mental and physical health equally, with the same out-of-pocket costs, benefit limits and practices such as prior authorization of treatment.

But final regulations on the 2008 law have still not been issued, the Carters said.

“The White House just has not followed up on it,’’ President Carter said.

“I’m really worried about it,’’ said Mrs. Carter, who advocated for the parity law’s passage.

The White House recently gave states flexibility on crafting the benefits package offered under the 2010 health reform law, and that shift may further unravel the impact of the parity law, she said.

The Carters also discussed the Carter Center’s work on eradicating disease in developing countries, and assessed the health reform law, in an interview with health journalist Andrew Holtz before hundreds of journalists at the kickoff session of the Association of Health Care Journalists conference.

Changes on mental health

The Carters are co-founders of the Carter Center, established 30 years ago in Atlanta.

They told the health journalists that the mental health parity law’s implementation has fallen victim partly to election-year politics, the reaction to health reform, and opposition from health insurers.

Mrs. Carter, who has been a tireless advocate on mental health issues for more than 40 years, told the assembly of journalists that she has seen some lessening of the stigma attached to depression and anxiety disorders.

Business leaders’ willingness to speak out about mental illness has also helped, President Carter said.

Mental health treatments have improved as well, from a time decades ago when there was little hope, Mrs. Carter said. “People can recover, even from serious mental illnesses.’’

A major hurdle remains, she said, in getting people over ‘‘the fear factor’’ surrounding mental illness.

Mrs. Carter and the Carter Center were instrumental in the negotiations leading to Georgia’s landmark 2010 agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice to improve the state’s problem-plagued mental health system.

Georgia is now on the verge of creating a model system that other states can emulate, she said.

The Carter Center’s work on eradicating disease has seen tremendous advances in the fight against Guinea worm, a painful parasitic illness.

In 1986, the disease afflicted an estimated 3.5 million people a year in 21 countries in Africa and Asia. Now, after work by the Carter Center and its partners, the disease exists in just in one country, South Sudan, President Carter said.

A war on preventable illnesses

The Carter Center is also fighting five other preventable diseases: river blindness, trachoma, schistosomiasis, lymphatic filariasis and malaria.

Last year, millions of people were treated for river blindness, President Carter said.

More than 500,000 latrines have been built in Ethiopia to help prevent trachoma, a disease that can spread due to lack of sanitation and clean water.

President Carter said these disease programs have included partnering with organizations such as the CDC, the World Health Organization and the Gates Foundation.

“We get to know the country intimately,’’ he added. “You can’t imagine the depth of gratitude these people have.’’

“We let the people do the work,’’ Mrs. Carter said.

On health reform, President Carter said opponents of the 2010 law, also known as the Affordable Care Act, have spread ‘‘propaganda’’ about it.

“I don’t have much confidence [the Supreme Court] will make the right decision’’ on the law, he said. The court is currently considering the law’s constitutionality and is expected to rule in June.

President Carter said that rather than the law as it now stands, he would have preferred a Medicare-for-all, single-payer system to cover every American.