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On November 5, Tom O'Clair took a day off from his job as a mechanic at the Thruway Authority to travel from his home in Schenectady to downtown Manhattan. He was to be the star speaker at a press conference on behalf of a new bill about mental-health care. Shortly after 2 p.m., Tom stood in front of the steps to City Hall, next to a poster of Timothy, his 12-year-old son.
"Timothy had been diagnosed early on as having attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and as being depressed," Tom told an audience of two reporters and four supporters. "He was hospitalized twice. The first time, he put the entire family at risk by throwing rags into our furnace at home. That same evening, we got him admitted to Four Winds psychiatric hospital in Saratoga."
Tom, 43, said he and his wife, Donna, had been trying to get help for Timothy since he was in third grade. "We were really limited in the amount of treatment he could get, with 20 outpatient visits per calendar year and 30 inpatient days per calendar year," Tom said. "This really caused us to have to budget our doctors' visits.
"If he was having a particularly good week, we didn't have to worry about it. If he was having a bad week, we might have to see the doctor twice. When his insurance ran out anytime through the years, whether it was halfway through the year or early on, it then became our financial responsibility to cover the appointments. This caused a great financial burden on the family."
Over the years, Timothy's troubles worsened, and the medical bills grew. "Timothy could go from a happy, laughing little boy in a matter of seconds to having a knife to his chest, threatening to do himself harm," Tom recalled. "His second hospitalization came after he had choked himself to the point of passing out in school."
By then, the O'Clairs had given up custody of their son. This seemed the only solution to their financial woes, since Timothy was now eligible for Medicaid. Timothy spent the next seven months in a residential-care facility, then returned home. Six weeks later, Tom said, "he took his own life, seven weeks before his 13th birthday."
Tom has told this story so many times that his tone is matter-of-fact and his eyes remain dry. For the last nine months, he and his wife have crisscrossed the state, telling the story of their son's suicide to hundreds of strangers. They've been to Syracuse, Albany, Binghamton, and Rochester; they've attended rallies, picnics, and even an event at a zoo.
All of this is in support of "Timothy's Law," a bill named after their son, which would eliminate insurance companies' limits on mental-health treatment. The law would require insurance plans to cover the care of mental illnesses the same way they cover physical illnesses.
Mental-health activists in New York State have been trying to establish parity between physical- and mental-health coverage for many years. This year, however, they have a new weapon: Timothy's story. For the first time, the parents of a suicide victim are helping lead the charge.
Thirty-three states across the country have already enacted some version of mental-health parity. In New York State, Timothy's Law was approved by the state assembly on June 4, but has yet to pass in the state senate.
Supporters of the bill insist it would increase employers' monthly premium for health insurance by only $1.26 per person. Opponents dispute this figure, and maintain that Timothy's Law would drive costs so high that the number of uninsured people would inevitably increase.
As the O'Clairs have attracted attention in newspapers across the state, the New York Health Plan Association, a lobbying group for the insurance industry, has fought back. In letters to various editors, president Paul F. Macielak acknowledges that stories like Timothy's "tug at our emotions," but he warns against "using emotion as a means to enact legislation that will ultimately hurt, not help, families like the O'Clairs."
Meanwhile, Tom O'Clair remains committed to his cause. His speech in front of City Hall was preceded by Councilmember David Weprin's announcement of a proposed resolution urging the state legislature to pass Timothy's Law. Tom plans to return to New York City in a month to testify at a council hearing. In the meantime, he'll continue barnstorming the state, recounting the events that led up to the day his 12-year-old son hanged himself in his bedroom closet.