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Please pass the Medicare Mental Health Improvement Act? Our seniors deserve it. | Opinion

By Amanda Maurer

In the 1950s, Judy was the first woman to become deputy mayor of Chatham. She organized anti-war rallies during the Korean and Vietnam Wars and advocated for peace. Later, in 2008, she campaigned for President Obama, going door to door urging her community to vote. I’m proud to call this powerful woman my grandmother.

In 2012, my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. This terrible illness caused her to develop severe depression and anxiety. Returning to her days of advocacy, she fought to receive mental health care. Yet despite her tireless efforts (and those of our family), she ran into obstacles and was pushed back by her health insurance policy.

It was hard to watch her struggle and even harder to see the government’s failure to empower and care for the elderly. Unfortunately, my grandmother’s experience with Medicare is not unique. This highlights a glaring failure of Medicare policy: Medicare’s mental health coverage gap and its impact on mental health treatment for older adults.

Sixty-three million Americans receive health insurance through Medicare, mostly those 65 and older. Among these people, approximately one in four suffers from at least one mental illness. While projected Medicare spending in 2022 is $768 billion, only $32 billion is allocated to mental health treatment. According to 2019 reports, Medicare wastes an estimated $50 billion annually on improper payments ranging from accounting errors to fraud.

So what is the Medicare mental health coverage gap? Medicare policy prevents hundreds of thousands of practitioners from providing care. The list of Medicare licensed mental health clinicians has not been updated since 1989, over 30 years ago! This gap prevents 12 million seniors from accessing the mental health services they need.

Hope is on the horizon. The Improving Access to Medicare Mental Health Act (S.286/HR945), first introduced in 2013, would increase the number of mental health counselors available to Medicare beneficiaries. This law would provide more equitable mental health treatment for seniors by including more treatment options.

More providers would ensure much easier access for my grandmother, as well as the millions of others who desperately need this care. It is important that we reach out to our representatives to share our support for the

Medicare Mental Health Access Improvement Actit therefore becomes law and has an immediate impact on the mental health of the elderly.

The Medicare mental health coverage gap, which affects millions of older Americans, must be closed. Looking ahead to the 2024 election cycle, New Jersey residents should vote only for congressional representatives who demand Medicare expansion and are against program budget cuts. We need to advocate for making Medicare (and supplemental insurance plans) more affordable for seniors, too.

GOP lawmakers can argue that Medicare’s Mental Health Access Improvement Act would negatively impact the stakeholders involved, such as hospitals, providers, pharmaceutical companies and the federal government. However, it is essential that they remember that the health of older people is at the forefront of the work that needs to be done.

Why access to mental health improvement law not already law?

It’s time to give seniors the support they need to improve their health and well-being. My grandmother’s mental health declined without access to professional support, which worsened her depression. She now relies on full-time help for her Alzheimer’s and mental illnesses. Don’t let what happened to my grandmother continue to happen to millions of seniors across the United States. Please support the politicians in favor of the Medicare program and the Medicare Mental Health Access Improvement Act in the next elections.

Amanda Maurer grew up in New Providence, NJ, and earned a bachelor’s degree in public health from Stockton University. She is currently a graduate student at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University, where she studies health policy and management.

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