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Assemblymember Gail Pellerin takes a leading role in the fight for mental health parity

Gail Pellerin’s emergence as a mental health advocate began in 2018 when her husband, Tom Chaffin, died by suicide.

At that time, Pellerin was comfortable seeking therapy when she needed it, but her husband was reluctant.

“He was in a dark, depressed, helpless state, and felt there was nowhere to turn,” Pellerin recalled in a recent Zoom interview. 

Her husband’s death challenged Pellerin’s notions about mental illness and forced her to reckon with the challenges faced by so many Californians who want to get treatment, but can’t access it or afford to pay out-of-pocket therapy.

“What does that say about us as a society that we let people fall through these cracks?” Pellerin said. “They’re not even cracks, they’re huge holes in the system that people are not able to access.”

In addition to serving as Santa Cruz County’s top election official since 1993, Pellerin became involved with the National Alliance on Mental Illness and, in 2022, ran for State Assembly on a platform of improving access to mental health care.

Now in the second year of her first term, Pellerin is keeping her promise. 

She joined the Assembly Select Committee on Mental Health in her first year in Sacramento and authored a still-pending bill with Planned Parenthood that would require patients receiving reproductive health services be screened for mental health conditions.

This year, she teamed up with NUHW on two bills that are now heading to the State Senate after passing the State Assembly by wide margins.

AB 3221 would help the Department of Managed Health Care better enforce state law by removing roadblocks that have made it difficult for the agency to conduct effective investigations.

AB 3260 would empower patients seeking mental health care to fight for their rights and win grievances when their health plan denies them appropriate care. 

“I will work from dawn to dusk to make sure those bills get through,” Pellerin told NUHW members and associate members during the union’s May 15 Lobby Day. “I know how critically important they are… to make sure people get the care and services they definitely must have.”

Pellerin said that she “learns so much” when she talks to NUHW-represented therapists about mental health care and that it helps inform her policy goals. “That collaboration is absolutely essential,” she said.

Pellerin knows that policymakers must confront the “unbelievably low” reimbursement rates that health insurers pay for mental health care as opposed to medical care. 

Low reimbursement rates, she noted, result in therapists choosing not to accept insurance, limiting access only to people who can afford to pay out-of-pocket. “We need to make sure that mental health care is something that everyone can access and everyone can afford,” she said.

Despite California’s dire budget situation, Pellerin is optimistic about the prospects for making real progress toward parity. “When you talk to people now about their top three priorities, most people mention mental health,” she said. “We’re putting a lot more attention, focus and resources on mental health care in California.”

And there is a growing network of mental health professionals and advocates willing to do the hard work of passing bills and holding health plans to account.

During NUHW Lobby Day, Pellerin talked to several NUHW associate members, including Corrine Sako, who were advocating for bills that Pellerin authored and NUHW sponsored.

“I want to work this journey with you,” Pellerin said in a short address to the NUHW members. “Please consider me a resource. Please consider me someone who is collaborating with you. I want to… do the important legislation we need to bring mental health up to parity with physical health in California.”

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