Students advocate for preservation of ACA’s mental health protections

As the conversation surrounding the future of the Affordable Care Act continues, a group of UNC School of Medicine students is working to make sure key mental health protections are maintained.

The effort is led by fourth-year medical student Sam Dotson. Dotson said shortly after November’s election, he and a group of fellow students gathered to discuss the results. As future physicians, they were, of course, interested in potential changes coming for the Affordable Care Act.

Dotson, who is interested in pursuing psychiatry, homed in on the ACA’s key protections of coverage for patients with mental illness.

“We know that mental health issues have crossed the aisle and received support from both Democrats and Republicans,” Dotson said. “So, as conversations began about the possibility of preserving parts of the law, we wanted to make sure our leaders understood how essential this coverage is to the people who depend on it.”

The group is advocating for protecting the Mental Health Parity provision of the ACA, which requires equal coverage for mental and physical health needs. This provision prevents insurance companies from discriminating against those with mental illness. Dotson points out the bipartisan nature of this protection. The ACA’s provision is an extension of a 2008 law signed by George W. Bush. The group is also working to preserve mental health and substance abuse treatment’s classification as Essential Health Benefits, requiring coverage from individual and small group insurance plans and banning annual and lifetime coverage limits.

Additionally, the group supports other key provisions including allowing children to remain on their parents’ insurance until age 26, banning discrimination based on preexisting conditions, and Medicaid expansion.

The group has launched an online petition, which so far has received more than 1,500 signatures. They have helped coordinate a “call-in day” for supporters to contact their elected officials. They are constantly working to engage others in the work, so far establishing connections with students and faculty at institutions like Harvard, Georgetown, and the University of Pennsylvania. The petition has been shared by national advocacy organizations like the American Psychiatric Association, the National Alliance to End Homelessness, NAMI, Mental Health America, and the National Council for Behavioral Health.

Dotson said this advocacy was partially inspired by the Advanced Practice Selective course. The course, which is required for all fourth-year medical students aims to expose students to the world of health care outside the exam room – issues like insurance, access, health policy, and quality improvement are all covered.

“To see Sam and his peers become inspired and galvanize others around this issue that is of great importance to our patients is really a dream for me as an educator,” said Sarah Smithson, MD, MPH, assistant professor of medicine and Advanced Practice Selective course director.

Dotson and the Save Mental Health Reform team are taking a pragmatic approach, waiting to see what the next few weeks will hold. But, no matter the changes that do or do not come, they are ready to advocate on behalf of patients.

To learn more about the effort, click here. Read an article about the effort in The Daily Tar Heel.