Everyone knows that mental health care is as necessary as physical health care to the quality of life of American men, women and children.
Well, almost everyone.
The passage of the federal mental health parity law in 2008 was a breakthrough moment when it seemed that, finally, there was broad enough agreement regarding the importance of mental health care that we could get past the crude “it’s-all-in-your-head” arguments that were once used as an excuse to treat physical ailments while leaving issues such as depression unaddressed.
But now that the law -- which requires mental health coverage to be equal to benefits for other illnesses -- is taking effect, unenlightened businesses are reminding us that not everyone “gets it.”
Some of them are even dropping mental health coverage altogether from their benefits packages.
What’s shocking for Madisonians -- and consumers across Wisconsin -- is the realization that one of those unenlightened businesses is Woodman’s Food Market, the popular grocery retailer that operates two stores in Madison and seven others around the state.
Woodman’s generally gets high marks as a locally owned and responsible chain.
But there was nothing responsible about the company’s decision to drop mental health coverage for its employees.
“We have one of the best health plans in Wisconsin, and we can’t open up our employee-owners to a bunch of unidentified costs. We can’t have an open checkbook,” griped Clint Woodman, a vice president at the company, in announcing that the company would no longer provide mental health coverage to its 2,800-plus workers.
Clint Woodman’s words are deeply disappointing, not merely because of the wrongheaded policy decision they describe but because of the profound ignorance they display.
There is no way to call a plan that does not meet mental health needs “one of the best health plans in Wisconsin.” To suggest as much is absurd.
And to describe mental health coverage as “a bunch of unidentified costs” is a statement straight out of the dark ages.
Woodman confirmed as much when he was asked to explain the difference between someone who needs extensive psychiatric help and someone who is fighting a serious cancer. “Cancer is different. That’s an identifiable physical situation,” he claimed. “Whereas with a mental health situation, you could say you need to see a psychiatrist every day for the next year and there’s no one to control those costs.”
William Greer, the CEO and president of the Dane County Mental Health Center, countered by pointing to Woodman’s shockingly ill-informed statement as “the whole reason behind parity laws.”
“Mental illness is not any different than any other illness,” explained Greer. “It can be treated. Both schizophrenia and cancer can be controlled, and a person with both can have a productive and healthy life. It’s discriminatory to say that one illness is different or inferior to another.”
Greer is right about that.
He and other mental health and workers’ rights advocates are also right to be worried about the decision by Woodman’s.
“It’s very important to address this issue head on,” said Greer. “This is a precedent that I’m very concerned about. I’m worried other employers could follow suit. My hope is that any employer who is worried about this will give mental health parity a try before canceling.”
That’s a smart stance, one that Woodman’s should quickly adopt.
The grocer needs to reverse a decision that is simply wrong. To fail to do so would cause responsible Madisonians and shoppers across Wisconsin to ask whether they really want to support a firm that operates from a place of ignorance that borders on cruelty.