Blue Cross CEO’s resignation sent the wrong message on mental health

In 12-step recovery, we often refer to a “moment of clarity.” This is when, for the first time, it becomes painfully obvious to someone struggling with alcohol that the illness is impacting their daily life in a way that is untenable, or even dangerous.

Patrick Conway, the former CEO of Blue Cross and Blue Shield North Carolina, had his moment of clarity on June 22, when he crashed his car with his kids in the back seat. Following the accident, Conway immediately told his board, sought treatment, and began the hard work of healing himself and his family. What happened next — his resignation and public scolding by elected officials and others — represents a lost opportunity for an open and honest public discussion about the many faces of addiction.

I want to point out something that was overlooked in coverage of the incident: Patrick Conway has done more to help those battling mental health and substance use disorders than almost anyone else in the last two decades. He has been absolutely instrumental in shaping how we as a nation have confronted illnesses of the brain by working to eliminate stigma and increase access to health care.

While at the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation, a key area of Patrick’s focus was collaborative care — a game-changing concept that addresses mental health and physical health as equally essential to overall health. Collaborative care pays doctors to communicate with one another, where before, there was little incentive to do so. This means that a patient’s primary care doctor would be incentivized to speak with their psychiatrist, or a pediatrician would be incentivized to speak with a child’s therapist. Better communication means more accurate diagnoses and comprehensive wrap-around treatment strategies. Recent research has shown that collaborative care is effective at improving outcomes and lowering costs.

At the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Patrick also implemented better methods to track outcomes and worked to ensure compliance with laws that require insurers to cover treatment for mental health and substance use disorders no more restrictively than treatment for illnesses of the body, such as diabetes and cancer.

At Blue Cross NC, he continued to blaze the same trail and was a national leader in helping improve quality and reduce costs. Patrick was responsible for the hiring of the first Chief Medical Director of Behavioral Health in company history and removed the practice of subcontracting or separating mental health treatment. He also integrated behavioral health with the rest of health care and launched a new addiction treatment provider company called Eleanor Health to treat people in outpatient programs, which included treatment for opioid use disorder.

Patrick’s resignation is a major setback, both for Blue Cross NC and for those battling addiction nationwide. He bravely shared that his substance use was an attempt to manage stress — something countless Americans can relate to. Unfortunately, Patrick was penalized for his moment of clarity instead of supported as someone in need of help.

Had Patrick remained at the helm of Blue Cross NC, imagine the message it would have sent, locally and nationally. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, North Carolina has a higher rate of opioid deaths than the national average. Watching Patrick confront addiction head on would have been a watershed moment in the fight against stigma.

Having people with lived experience hold leadership roles within health care and policy is vitally important to creating a system that benefits everyone. These voices matter. It’s time we embrace them instead of silencing them.

Former U.S. Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy was lead sponsor of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 and served on the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis. He is co-chair of Mental Health for Us and co-author, with Stephen Fried, of A “Common Struggle: A Personal Journey through the Past and Future of Mental Illness and Addiction.”