The following article is part of conference coverage from the 2019 American Psychiatric Association Annual Meeting (APA 2019) in San Francisco, CA. Psychiatry Advisor’s staff will be reporting breaking news associated with research conducted by leading experts in psychiatry. Check back for the latest news from APA 2019.

SAN FRANCISCO — Valerie Jarrett, JD, a presidential advisor to President Barack Obama from 2009 to 2017, discussed the importance of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and mental health care parity during the opening session of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) Annual Meeting, held May 18-22, 2019, in San Francisco, California. Ms Jarett was the guest of the association’s president, Altha Stewart, MD, for a fireside chat.

During her tenure in the White House, Ms Jarrett oversaw the Offices of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs, and acted as chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls. In these roles, she sought to develop access to the middle class, promote equality and diversity, empower women, and boost the economy by mobilizing a wide array of groups, from business and community leaders to elected officials and advocacy groups. Among the many awards she received, Ms Jarrett was listed by TIME magazine as one of the “100 Most Influential People” in 2013.

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When introducing Valerie Jarrett to the audience, Dr Stewart remarked on the instrumental role she played in the passage of the ACA, as well as on her continued commitment to mental health advocacy. “Briefly share with this audience of psychiatrists and other mental health professionals the importance as you see it of protecting the ACA and of ensuring that mental health was included as an essential component of the bill,” asked Dr Stewart. “It was important to us to try to improve the delivery of mental health services across the country, and treating it on parity was an essential component,” said Ms Jarrett. “We didn’t want cost and access to treatment to be an impediment for people seeking mental health care, but we all know that there is still a stigma, and so we continuously used the right vocabulary so that we could start to break down the stigma that represents a barrier for so many people, so that they can seek the treatment that they need.”

Ms Jarrett drew inspiration from her father’s experience as a research faculty at the University of Chicago, where she now serves as chairman of the Medical Center Board of Trustees. Her father fought to overcome health disparities he saw on the South Side of Chicago, and Ms Jarrett took the lessons he gathered from his experience and applied them while in public service. Her father told her: “You have to listen.” As she and others crafted the ACA, Ms Jarret recounts the extensive amount of time she spent talking to interested parties, from clinicians and patients, to individuals who were uninsured, and others who couldn’t start a business for fear of losing their medical insurance due to a pre-existing condition. “We looked at the issue from every possible vantage point, so as to ensure that we were reforming in a way that would provide better healthcare, that would be one step further,” Ms Jarrett recalled, adding that the architects recognized that not all issues could be addressed in one bill. By listening to a wide range of people, she and her colleagues sought to avoid any unintended consequences.

There are close to 39,000 APA members who are at the forefront of mental health care, taking care of the nation’s mentally ill people, said Dr Stewart. “What words would you have for them, to encourage and support them, to help them push the needle a little bit, based on your experience?” asked Dr Stewart. “Know that you have partners around the country who want to work with you, so you shouldn’t feel as though you are alone. I think that one of the advantages of this association is that there is safety in numbers and the association provides a platform where you can share your best practices,” answered Ms Jarrett.

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Dr Stewart then asked Ms Jarrett about the role she thought healthcare was going to hold in the upcoming election. “Everybody’s saying now we can agree on infrastructure. I believe we should invest in infrastructure, but I believe we should first invest in our own infrastructure, our physical and mental health,” Ms Jarrett replied, “I think the ACA is a complicated piece of business, and I think what’s important is to make the case for why it is an important issue, and shouldn’t be a partisan issue. And if you can help even in your own communities, by talking to people about why the ACA is good, but also if you think of ways in which it should be improved…If you can take it out of the political atmosphere by talking about it in different contexts, then maybe we can break the fever. Please keep talking about it in nonpolitical terms, and maybe we can get the politicians to move things.”

For more coverage of APA 2019, click here.


Valerie Jarrett and Altha Stewart. Opening session featuring fireside chat with Valerie Jarrett. American Psychiatric Association Annual Meeting; May 18-22, 2019; San Francisco, CA.

This article originally appeared on Psychiatry Advisor