Over the past few weeks, Washington has been consumed by conversations about the federal budget. Two recent events we attended, a Center for American Progress discussion and a Congressional Neuroscience Caucus briefing, aimed to cut through the rhetoric and focus on specific aspects of health funding – the affordability of healthcare and the relationship between mental illness and violence.
The March 13 Center for American Progress discussion, “The High Price of Healthcare,” featured the journalist and author Steven Brill, who wrote the recent TIME cover article “Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us.” The conversation covered the excessive number of healthcare services and exorbitant prices, as well as reforms to control healthcare spending. “[Brill’s article] has changed the entire conversation surrounding healthcare,” said panelist Giovanni Colella, CEO and co-founder of Castlight Health. “It takes the issue to where the real problem is. This is an industry where the entire incentive system is wrong. We don’t know what we are paying, what we are buying, or what the outcomes are relative to costs. That would never fly in any other industry. Imagine paying for a Ferrari and getting a Toyota.”
While much of the debate about the Affordable Care Act has focused on who is responsible for paying for healthcare, Brill pointed out that there isn’t as much focus on the actual costs: “During the debate over Obamacare, the questions being asked were about who pays for healthcare, when the question should have been ‘why does it cost so much?’”
The March 18 Congressional Neuroscience Caucus briefing examined the critical topic of mental illness and violence, as well as the state of mental health services and programs in the United States and scientific breakthroughs on the horizon that can benefit the 60 million Americans who suffer from mental illness. “There are two parallel conversations going on right now,” said Thomas R. Insel, director, National Institute of Mental Health. “One is about taking a fresh look at policy dealing with gun violence due to the recent tragic events at Sandy Hook, and other places. The other, due to things that have happened in only the last few months, is about revolutions taking place in brain research. President Obama mentioned mapping the brain in his recent State of the Union Address. But nobody is bridging these two conversations. If we want to prevent more Sandy Hooks, we have to do more about brain research.”
Elizabeth Childs, child and adolescent psychologist and former commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health, emphasized the importance of funding mental health research in tough economic times: “I am well aware of the challenges you face here in Washington to balance our budget, but there are investments worth making. Underfunding of the National Institute of Mental Health does not move us in the right direction. The reality is that the lack of investment in mental health is far more costly in the long run, including the increased burden that untreated mental illness has on the nation’s education, public safety and corrections systems. And that is before we factor in the incalculable human cost to families and our society.”
These conversations about the unique aspects and critical impact of federal health funding are pivotal to our nation’s well-being and productivity. As these conversations continue, we must focus on the real-world impact of policy decisions on patients, families, and communities nationwide.