Former U.S. Rep. Jim Ramstad (R-Minn.) dedicated the majority of his 18 years in Congress to educating others about the disease nature of addiction and the importance of equal care for mental health and addiction disorders. After his decision to leave Congress last year, Ramstad's passion for the issues and long-standing reputation as a champion of addictions advocacy made him an obvious choice for Hazelden's Senior Policy Adviser—a role that Ramstad assumed in February 2010.
“Serving as a Senior Policy Adviser at Hazelden will enable me to continue my passionate advocacy for greater access to treatment for people suffering the ravages of addiction,” Ramstad says. In his new role, he is responsible for advising the executive team, board of directors, and staff at Hazelden on federal legislative issues concerning addiction treatment and recovery. In particular, Ramstad will focus on integrated behavioral healthcare reform and the implementation of the parity law that he co-sponsored as a former member of Congress.
“Like my former job as a member of Congress, I will concentrate on policy and strategy, but now it's from the outside,” he says. “My new job is a very exciting challenge, and I can continue to work on the issues of which I feel very passionate about with world-renowned Hazelden, so I couldn't be happier.”
Taking the fight for fair policy personally
Ramstad's passion for addictions issues is rooted in his own experience with alcoholism. “On July 31, 1981, after waking up in a jail cell as a result of my last alcoholic episode, I finally admitted I was powerless over alcohol and my life had become unmanageable,” he says. His political career was just beginning as a member of the Minnesota Senate, but Ramstad sought treatment and has since been in recovery for 28 years.
However, it would be many more years before Ramstad could successfully convince Congress that his disease was worthy of the same benefits as any other disease. Partnering with Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) to form the Addiction Treatment and Recovery Caucus in the House of Representatives, Ramstad was determined to educate Congress about the severity of alcohol and other drug addictions and the need for equal benefits.
As the two rising champions of addictions advocacy, Ramstad and Kennedy traveled the country in an effort to spread their message. “We went to 14 different states and invited the insurance companies to attend along with consumers, law enforcement, and mental health and addiction professionals,” he says. Ramstad realized soon enough that his peers in Congress weren't the only ones who were uneducated about addiction: Insurers were also in the dark, particularly in regards to the high cost of allowing addiction disorders to go untreated.
“They came around to supporting parity because they realized they wouldn't be paying out as much in healthcare costs once parity was enacted,” he says. “If we treat people up front there's a cost savings. So, one by one, the insurance companies came to support parity and helped us pass it in the end. It's a matter of education.” After 12 years, Ramstad and Kennedy won their fight, and their dedicated efforts were rewarded by passage of the Parity Act in 2008.
Remaining the “eternal optimist”
With the release of the parity regulations in January 2010, the public saw Ramstad's hard work finally come to fruition. And while most insurance companies complied by developing fair plans for coverage that would reduce healthcare costs in the long run, Ramstad is no stranger to the fact that others have responded in a less-than-desirable way.
“The irresponsible insurance companies are in the minority, but they've created some new plans that exclude benefits that clearly should be offered under the new regulations,” he says. “We need to educate the American people to make sure their plans comply with the new federal regulations.”
Despite the negative response from some insurance companies, Ramstad says that he is “very optimistic that the regulations will be effective in carrying out the intent of Congress with respect to the new law.” He is also optimistic that the ongoing effort toward healthcare reform will be effective in providing access to affordable and integrated care to millions of Americans.
“I am an eternal optimist, and I believe if we continue to work in a bipartisan, pragmatic, and commonsense way, we will see real healthcare reform,” Ramstad says. “We need full equality of treatment, full integration, and we need to treat diseases of the brain the same as we treat diseases of the body-that should be one of the ultimate objectives of reform.”
In his new position, Ramstad will help Hazelden navigate through the implementation of healthcare reform and carry on his advocacy for addiction treatment. “I still have the fire in the belly, the passion, to advocate for those suffering the ravages of mental illness and addiction,” he says. “I'm never going to quit that until I leave this earth. I'm a grateful recovering alcoholic of 28 years and that's my way to give back.”
Behavioral Healthcare 2010 April;30(4):40