Politics and Powerlessness: An Interview With Representative Jim Ramstad

Jim Ramstad at the U.S. Capitol discussing the Mental Health Parity Act. Image from Wikipedia.

To honor the life and work of Representative Jim Ramstad, we are re-publishing the following article written by former editor and publisher, Julia Edelman in the summer of 1998. In 2008, Ramstad announced he would not seek re-election and left Congress in 2009. Ramstad was instrumental in the advancement of a law that would prohibit insurance companies from denying treatment services to those with addictions. Ramstad died of Parkinson’s disease on November 5, 2020.

“Another crooked politician,” my father would growl between bites of corn-on-the-cob and rib-eye steak. It could have been any political figure he was referring to, although Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley was a favorite target.

Dad was a staunch Republican, the setting was 1960s suburbia, and by dinnertime he inevitably had a few Beefeater martinis under his belt.

But, oh, how times have changed.

Or have they? As dubious political fundraising techniques and sex scandals captivate the American public, one has to think long and hard about the moral fiber of our elected officials. And when I allow myself the digression into political philosophizing. I wonder about our leaders’ sincerity: What motivates them to sit on this committee or that? Do they causes they ardently lobby for come from a desire to gain more electoral votes next time around, or do they come from genuine concern for the well-being of their constituents?

This family history riddled with skepticism is what made it refreshing to meet Representative Jim Ramstad, a Republican who is co-sponsoring the Substance Abuse Treatment Parity Act along with Democratic Senator Paul Wellstone.

I had abused alcohol for 12 long years and this was God’s way of telling me that I was an alcoholic—he just had a little help from law enforcementRamstad, who introduced this from-the-heart bill last year, has represented the western suburbs of Minneapolis since 1991. Ten years earlier he was arrested for disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and failure to leave a Holiday Inn coffee shop at 2:00 a.m. in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

He was drunk.

“I was a young state senator and that was my last alcoholic blackout—July 31, 1981,” says Ramstad of the incident. “I had gone to Sioux Falls to speak at a dinner and a bunch of my professional football friends at the time…,” his story begins.

Ramstad awoke the next day in a jail cell. His head was throbbing, and the local newspaper detailed his previous night’s activities. He had hit rock bottom.

“I wanted to be dead,” says Ramstad. “It was awful. I figured my political career was over—I just assumed that if it were in the papers, it was over. Little did I realize that it was the beginning of a new, chemically free lifestyle, and recovery. At the time it seemed like the end of the world.”

That morning Ramstad took his First Step as defined by Alcoholics Anonymous. He admitted that he was powerless over alcohol, and that his life had become unmanageable.

“I made the commitment to go to treatment when I woke up from my blackout in the jail cell. I knew then that I was an alcoholic,” Ramstad says. “I had abused alcohol for 12 long years and this was God’s way of telling me that I was an alcoholic—he just had a little help from law enforcement.”

When Ramstad got home he checked himself into St. Mary’s Rehabilitation Center—now called Fairview Recovery Services. It was there that he learned the rigors of staying sober. It was there that he learned about continuing care and relapse prevention. And it was there that he freed himself from the bonds of living a secret life.

When Ramstad got out of treatment, he was a changed man. He committed himself to a life of openness and honesty—one not often associated with politics—and his political career flourished in a way he could not have anticipated. “The more honest I became with people about my alcoholism, the more they were supportive and embraced me.

“People opened up to me about their own problems of addiction, or of their families problems of addiction,” recalls Ramstad. “The more I peeled away my own shell—my defenses and denial—the closer I got to people from all walks of life.”

The Substance Abuse Parity Act

As a self-described grateful recovering alcoholic who has experienced the value of treatment firsthand, it’s no small wonder that Ramstad has taken on the Substance Abuse Parity Act as his mission.

The bill, like Ramstad, is straightforward. It asks for adequate medical treatment for alcoholics and drug addicts by prohibiting health insurers from placing discriminatory caps, deductibles, and other restrictions on treatment services.

“I’m alarmed by the dwindling access to treatment for people who need help,” says Ramstad, who views the current treatment center crisis as a cause-and-effect relationship run amuck.

The cause, he believes, is the fact that insurance companies are discriminating against addicts and alcoholics in terms of their treatment experience. The effect is that treatment centers are closing at a dizzying rate.

But why the discrimination in the first place? The answer is twofold, according to Ramstad. First, many insurance companies don’t recognize the disease nature of addiction. Second, treatment is merely a matter of dollars and cents to the insurers.

In Ramstad’s eyes, such a perspective is irresponsible. “They [the insurers] feel they can block access to treatment with impunity,” he says. As the insurance companies cut back, so must the treatment centers—or face closing their doors. According to Ramstad, insurance cutbacks are why 50 percent of the adult treatment beds, and 60 percent of those for adolescents, have disappeared in the last 10 years.

Education

To address the fact that most insurance companies don’t view addiction as a disease similar in nature to diabetes or kidney disease, education is paramount. Programs such as Bill Moyers five-part PBS series “Close to Home: Moyers on Addiction“, which aired in March, help raise public awareness. Even conservative Time magazine ran a cover story (May 5, 1997) entitled “How We Get Addicted” which delved into the chemical nature of addiction and offered scientists’ solutions on how to get cured. The media is hot on the nature-of-addiction trail.

But high-profile coverage of addiction has been a long time coming, and for many people, ignorance is bliss.

In Congress, as in recovery, change can be a long, slow process. According to Ramstad, the main problem facing the Ramstad-Wellstone bill is the Congressional leadership, who need to be convinced that parity for substance abuse treatment is necessary.

“They introduced a whole package of legislation designed to become a drug free America,” says Ramstad. “One glaring omission was the treatment component. Until we get a treatment component as part of our strategy the problem is only going to get worse.

“For too long government has continued to emphasize the supply side of the drug problem through interdiction efforts—trying to stop drugs on the border, law enforcement efforts, and so forth,” Ramstad emphasizes. “That’s important, but unless we address the demand side through education, prevention, and treatment, we’re not going to put a dent in the problem.”

The bill currently has 39 co-sponsors, including Minnesota Democratic Representative Bill Luther, David Minge, and Bruce Vento.

It’s time to speak up

As with any cause, to a certain degree it’s up to the affected individuals to be vocal. This includes not only the 1.7 million recovering Americans who intimately understand the ravages of addiction, but their families, friends and employers who have also been affected.

The role of people in recovery is to help others still struggling.“In politics,” explains Ramstad, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Unless we’re successful in mobilizing the recovering community to exert pressure on their members of congress to pass this lifesaving legislation, we’re not going to pass the bill.”

Ramstad, sympathetic to many recovering people’s need for anonymity, explains that one doesn’t have to divulge their sobriety status to support the bill. However, supporting the bill may be an effective and gratifying way to support the 26 million American’s who are still in the throes of addiction.

“The role of people in recovery is to help others still struggling. One of the ways we can help others still struggling is to provide access to treatment. That’s what this treatment parity bill is all about,” says Ramstad.

It’s as simple as that.

The Mental Health Parity Act and Addiction Equity Act was finally signed into law on October 2008 – 10 years later.


Julia Edelman was the former editor and publisher of The Phoenix Spirit.

Last Updated on November 8, 2020

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