Guns don’t kill people. People kill people. People kill people quite rapidly with certain well-appointed guns. In realizing this, Connecticut’s legislature turned its back on the NRA hard line that there should be no limits on the efficient lethality machined into a gun, because guns are benign just sitting there in the gun case. Of course, they are also designed with stocks, grips, recoil reduction and other innovations to make them easy to pick up and use, sometimes by the wrong people. So now that the Connecticut gun debate appears to have boarded Air Force One with President Obama on Monday and flown off to Washington, the discussion in the state needs to bring equal fervor and discernment to our system for delivering mental health services. While it is incorrect to assume gun violence has nothing to do with guns, it is equally flawed to assume that placing restrictions on certain guns solves the problem.
It is also wrong to assume the main value of strong behavioral health policies is in unmasking sociopaths and protecting society from unbalanced people. Newtown, more than any community, has come to know the value of mental health services. Through the agency of supporting donations, volunteers, and Newtown’s extraordinary base of professional mental health care providers, the needs of a community struggling in emotional turmoil are being addressed, though not completely without complication or delay.
Most people gain access to the mental health care system through their insurance companies. By federal law, insurance coverage for mental health services is supposed to enjoy “parity” with medical services. It is evident, however, to anyone who has tried to secure mental health services through an insurance company that getting coverage for a broken arm is far less complicated than getting coverage for, say, a broken heart. The insurers may have established criteria for it, but they seem to have a hard time making them clear to both policyholders and service providers. The legislature needs to take a look at policies and regulations for insurance companies to better implement the spirit of the parity law, while encouraging them to open their networks to more providers, especially in areas with acute psychological needs, like Newtown.
In the meantime, the state’s Insurance Department is working on a good idea of its own. With the help of psychiatrists at the UConn Health Center, it is developing a “claims tool kit” for both consumers and behavioral health providers to demystify the process of filing claims so that more of those claims can be approved on the first try. It’s a simple idea: help people with the paperwork so they don’t have to wander around by themselves in the forest of phone trees the insurance companies have planted around their most useful information. After all, process doesn’t heal people. People heal people.