PAOLA — Jennifer Cook of rural Paola and her family members are on a mission.
It’s a mission that began more than eight months ago after Cook’s younger sister, Kristi Bennett, took her own life when she couldn’t find a mental health treatment facility that her insurance would accept.
And it’s a mission that Cook and her family members won’t consider complete until legislation is approved that will help prevent similar tragedies from taking place.
“She was fighting depression,” Cook said. “She planned on getting help at a treatment facility, but just when she thought her insurance was going to cover it, they rejected her.”
The tragedy happened in April 2019, a time in which Kristi was battling severe depression spawned by some difficult times in her personal life.
Jerry Bennett, Kristi’s father and general manager of Miami County Rural Water District No. 2, said Kristi had been prescribed multiple medications ranging from antidepressants to anti-anxiety pills, and she was also using alcohol to cope.
The family members knew Kristi needed help, and they said Kristi realized it too. Together, they tried to find the right treatment facility.
Kristi’s sister Stephanie got to work calling about 30 different facilities to try and find help.
“She was denied treatment by multiple institutions because she didn’t have an emergency case first,” Cook said.
Finally, Kristi and her family members found a treatment facility in Austin, Texas, that would admit her, and her insurance company gave her pre-approval.
Cook said the plane tickets were purchased, and Kristi began packing Monday, April 15, for her scheduled flight the next day. It was then she was notified that her insurance request was denied because the facility was out of state.
“She told me Wednesday that she couldn’t find a facility that would take her insurance because several facilities said they only took emergencies such as attempted suicide patients,” Cook said.
On the night of Thursday, April 18, Kristi took 15 Wellbutrin tablets. Family members believe Kristi didn’t think the dose would be fatal, based on conversations she had with others making plans for later that week, as well as the fact she also took caffeine pills so she wouldn’t go to sleep.
Family members believe Kristi’s plan was for her sister Stephanie, who is a nurse and was sleeping in the next room at the time, to find her and take her to the hospital.
Instead, Kristi was pronounced dead Friday, April 19, 2019, at the age of 28.
“If she would have gotten on that plane, she’d still be here,” Cook said.
The family members were shocked, confused and angry, and Cook said they started doing research to determine what they could do to prevent another tragedy like Kristi’s from taking place.
They learned about the federal Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equality Act (MHPAEA) that was passed in 2008 and linked with the Affordable Care Act. The legislation was designed to guarantee equal coverage of treatment for mental illness and addiction as compared to medical claims, but Cook said that more than a decade later the services are still not comparable, and only certain states have chosen to make it a priority.
“This is the largest health disparity that no one is talking about,” Cook said.
Kristi’s family members turned to Topeka for answers, and their work has resulted in a senate bill that has already been prefiled for the upcoming legislative session set to begin Monday, Jan. 13.
Senate Bill 249, also known as the Kristi L. Bennett Mental Health Parity Act, would in essence put control into the hands of doctors, psychologists and psychiatrists when it comes to determining the treatment needs of a patient, not an insurance company.
According to the bill, if it is determined that a patient needs in-patient treatment for substance abuse or suicidal ideation, the patient will get in-patient treatment “without the imposition of prior authorization, concurrent review, retrospective review or any other form of utilization review for the first 14 days.”
The same would apply to the first 180 days of out-patient treatment, if that is what the medical and psychiatric professionals determine is necessary, according to the bill.
The bill was co-sponsored by a handful of state senators, including Baldwin City Democrat Tom Holland, who represents Jerry Bennett; Lenexa Democrat Dinah Sykes, who represents Stephanie; and Louisburg Republican Molly Baumgardner, who represents Cook.
Baumgardner said suicide rates continue to rise across the country, especially in Kansas.
“That’s just not acceptable,” she said.
Baumgardner also reiterated the importance of having medical and psychiatric professionals determining the best care for patients. She used the same example she brought up during the press conference when the bill was introduced. Her scenario involves someone who is experiencing chest pain, and a doctor discovers artery blockage and recommends a stint procedure.
“Imagine if it was not approved by a provider until the person actually has a heart attack,” Baumgardner said. “We would think that’s irrational.”
Baumgardner clarified that she doesn’t view insurance companies as adversaries in this process, but she does believe they need to get involved in the discussion.
“We really need insurance companies to come to the table and work with us to find solutions for Kansans,” Baumgardner said.
Cook said she is anticipating some backlash from the insurance industry, and she has already heard some opinions that the legislation would result in a rise in premiums.
“Yes, it may raise premiums, but ask yourself honestly, if that happened to your child or your sister or your brother, how much would you pay to get them life-saving treatment?” Cook asked.
Rep. Jene Vickrey of Louisburg is the chairman of the state insurance committee, and he remembers when MHPAEA went into effect in 2008. He said he realized then it was limited and only a start.
“It is appropriate to revisit how that’s working and what we can do to make it work better,” Vickrey said. “We need to do all we can to improve access, while keeping it affordable.”
Vickrey said the best way to break down the process will be in hearings, and he anticipates there being a concurrent bill in the House on the topic that will go through hearings.
He also said he has spoken with the family members of Kristi, and he called the situation “heartbreaking.”
Sen. Caryn Tyson of Parker agreed, calling the situation “tragic.”
Tyson said an insurance company that is not in the room with a healthcare provider and patient should not be dictating what can or can’t be done.
“It’s just not right,” Tyson said, adding that it is another component of a health care crisis that includes issues like Medicaid expansion and the Osawatomie State Hospital.
Rep. Mark Samsel agreed, adding that he is appalled by any current standard that would reject a patient because their mental health issue is not severe enough.
“That is concerning to me,” he said.
After not discussing the issue in 2019, Samsel said it has been made abundantly clear to him by talking with his constituents that the issue needs to be addressed in the 2020 session.
“We need to be having these discussions in our committee meetings,” Samsel said. “Hopefully, this is a good start in the right direction.”
Jerry said he is pleased to see momentum on passing new legislation, even if he knows it won’t bring back his daughter.
“We’re trying to make something positive out of something horrible,” Jerry said, adding that he and his family members plan to see the process through to the end.
“We intend to save lives with this legislation,” he said.