Fifty years after President John F. Kennedy signed the first national law aimed at preventing or improving treatment for mental illness and developmental disabilities, another major piece of that legislation is expected to be rolled out this fall.

Congress passed the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act in 2008, meant to reduce discrimination and improve access to care for people with mental illness and substance use disorders. But the US Department of Health and Human Services still has not issued a final rule to put the law into effect.

Patrick Kennedy, who shepherded the law through Congress as a representative for Rhode Island and has been working with the Obama administration on the issue, said on a press call Wednesday morning that he expects the rule to be released early fall.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

He also announced a plan to host a conference in Boston to mark the 50th anniversary of his uncle’s leadership on the issue and to give advocates and researchers a forum for discussing how to put the newest law to work.

The newly created Kennedy Forum will host a conference and gala at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum Oct. 23-24 to “call upon and empower today’s generation of leaders to carry fourth the torch lit by my uncle,” Patrick Kennedy said.

In February 1963, President Kennedy urged Congress to invest in prevention and in the people and facilities that treat people with mental illness or developmental disabilities, with an emphasis on community-based care. He decried a system focused on institutional care that cost the country billions but did little to relieve the anguish of families affected.

“This situation has been tolerated far too long,” the president said then. “It has troubled our national conscience--but only as a problem unpleasant to mention, easy to postpone, and despairing of solution.”

Eight months later, Kennedy signed what is known today as the Community Mental Health Act of 1963.

Progress has been made since then, but the challenge of providing the best care for people with mental illness and developmental disability is far from solved, said Patrick Kennedy. He pointed in particular to the fact that insurers can still refuse to pay for coverage of a mental illness at the same rate that they pay for treatment of physical disorders. He highlighted “a growing suicide epidemic” among returning service members and the broader American population.

This is the second major initiative on mental health that Kennedy has launched since he left Congress in 2011, after 16 years in the House of Representatives. The first was ONE MIND, to fund brain research.

The Kennedy Forum also will address policy, treatment, and community approaches to care.

“We’re going to keep the focus on the personal,” said Kennedy, who has been open about his own struggle with addiction. “We’re going to keep the focus on, how do we want to treat our loved ones?” That’s the benchmark, he said, against which to judge the country’s progress over the past 50 years and those to come.