Caveman With a Cause

Republican Jamie Callender takes up the fight for mental health parity -- despite what his party thinks.

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Callender calls the insurance industry's coverage of - mental illness "morally wrong." - Walter  Novak
Callender calls the insurance industry's coverage of mental illness "morally wrong."
God inscribed Republican ideals in Jamie Callender's DNA. He was born into a GOP family on January 9, 1965, sharing his birthday with Richard Nixon. At age 6, Callender sent the President a birthday card; Nixon sent one back. And when Callender came of age in the 1980s, he was spellbound by Ronald Reagan, whose warmth and American pride infected him.

"Reagan is why I'm a Republican," he says.

Ol' Dutch would've been proud of Callender's conservative development as a Lake County Young Republican. Callender trusted in trickle-down economics and believed government should keep its regulating hands off business. He thought abortion should be banned, and that assault rifles should be legal.

Reagan's were the glory years, but they couldn't last forever. In 1988, Callender enlisted in the campaign to fill the President's shoes with a like-minded hero. Damir Pavicic, another Lake County Republican, was looking for the same. They both found Jack Kemp.

"Kemp for President" vaporized with Super Tuesday, but Callender and Pavicic kept meeting to talk politics. Callender told his friend that he'd run for office someday. Pavicic said he'd like to take a shot at politics himself. But there was a small problem: He had a mental illness to contend with.

Pavicic had recently been diagnosed with manic depression, characterized by mood swings that ranged from feelings of worthlessness to grandiose delusion. The condition made it difficult to maintain relationships; the afflicted often cope with it in isolation. At the time he met Callender, Pavicic was still trying to "get a handle" on his illness. Callender didn't know it at the time, but his friendship helped Pavicic with the fight.

"Jamie shared the same interests as I did, and that didn't change because of the illness," Pavicic says. "He supported me in spite of my illness, not because of it."

Callender's children would come to know Pavicic as "Uncle Teddy," and there was always a chair ready for him at the family's dinner table. Pavicic didn't aim to influence Callender's position on mental health, but he sensitized his friend anyway.

"Morally wrong" -- that's how Callender came to view the insurance industry practice of offering lesser benefits for mental illnesses when compared to the coverage for physical illnesses. But it was not until 1997, when Callender was elected to the Ohio House, that he was in a position to do something about it.

It would seem an unlikely position for Callender. He is, by all accounts, among the most conservative members of the legislature. And government mandates, no matter how well-meaning, are usually prohibited under rightist theory. Besides, to take up mental health parity would be to offend many of the people he owes his good fortune to. Callender, after all, hails from a traditionally Democratic district, and he readily admits that, if not for a flurry of large, last-minute donations, he wouldn't have been elected in the first place.

But Callender began pushing the issue not long into his first session. Four years later, his consensus-building -- particularly in Republican quarters, where the issue is a tough sell -- may decide whether parity comes to Ohio.

Ohio is one of just 18 states without any form of parity, and there is a mountain of organized resistance to changing that. Republicans must be persuaded to vote against their instincts and their interest groups, and Democrats who support it philosophically must be convinced not to sabotage it for political reasons.

Callender, oddly enough, has become the ideal ambassador. On one hand, he is a proud member of the "Caveman Caucus," the far right wing of the House, nicknamed for its vehement conservatism. Yet Callender doesn't provoke liberals like the rest of the grumpy old men in the Caveman Caucus. He is either a bit more affable or a bit more sophisticated, for there is little trace of dogma in his words. Callender's round face intensifies only when he's listening. His voice rarely modulates, and the neutral tone makes it hard to tell when he's making an argument or stating a fact.

All of which makes some Democrats want to forgive his political beliefs. "He's a conservative, but not a reactionary," says Representative Ed Jerse of Euclid. "And he's not anti-labor." Cleveland Representative Shirley Smith muses that Callender's politics are "very strange," but adds that, at some level, she and Callender "share the same types of concerns about helping people."

"He's a good friend of mine," says Representative Peter Lawson Jones, a Democrat from Shaker Heights. "Of course, there are significant philosophical differences between him and me, but personally, I respect him."

His goodwill with Democrats keeps them aboard on parity, but Callender's Republican brethren, who constitute majorities in both the House and Senate, will be toughest to budge.

Achieving parity means swallowing the two most indigestible words in conservative theology: government mandate. Parity would require insurers to make mental benefits on par with coverage for physical health. The insurance lobby objects for fear of government meddling, and the business community worries about increased payroll costs.

"Those are some big supporters, big contributors -- especially for Republicans," warns Republican Senator Robert Gardner, who represents Lake and Ashtabula counties.

In short: It's foolhardy to upset the party's base. Callender understands this better than anyone, because he's feeling heat.

"There were two groups who would talk to me about it," Callender says. "One was the hardcore conservatives, who believed that insurance companies are private businesses, and therefore we shouldn't regulate them or put requirements on them. That's a government mandate.

"The other criticism, on a political basis, was [that] I had a number of people saying, 'Jamie, you live in a tough seat. You're going to have trouble getting re-elected, because the first time it cost $250,000 to win your seat. You can't win again without raising lots of money, and you know insurance companies are big contributors. How dare you go against them so publicly! You'll be lucky to raise any money from them.'"

Callender isn't the only Republican charging through this mine-laden field. Representative Lynn Olman, from suburban Toledo, favored parity way before it was in vogue. He says he was simply won over by the logic -- which presumably was no small feat, since Olman is an insurance agent. The two men complement each other: If insurance lobbyists cried over the impact of parity on their business, Olman would speak to the advantages for insurers; if others objected on a philosophical level, Callender would speak to its conservative appeal.

"You've got a right-wing extremist like me and an insurance agent like Lynn Olman," laughs Callender. "I think we surprised some people."

Callender believes the issue is enormously attractive to the pure conservative. Though premiums in states with parity have tended to rise by 3 percent -- equating to $3.81 per month for the average worker -- the short-term costs are offset in about three years, he asserts. After that, significant savings kick in, when one calculates the preventive value of enhanced mental health. The mentally ill can work and become self-sufficient, as opposed to absorbing Medicaid dollars and bloating the costs of state institutions.

In Callender's first session, he and Olman signed onto a bill by Representative Charleta Tavares, a Columbus Democrat. The Republican-chaired Insurance Committee did not even give it a hearing. When Olman's bill, co-sponsored by Callender, arrived at the committee in the 1999-2000 session, it got a hearing, but no vote.

This session, the two men have another bill, but the obstacles are greater. November's elections produced an even more conservative House. Callender likes the challenge. He'll try to sway the Caveman Caucus, which figures to be the most stubborn bloc.

"When those legislators are hearing from both sides on an issue, credibility is what matters," he says. "That's why I, as a Caveman, have a better chance to win their votes."

However, most legislators doubt that Callender and Olman can dispel a notion spread by the insurance lobby: that parity would make health care too expensive for thousands of Ohioans, and that it would force businesses to lay off employees.

Even Olman is beginning to sound dismal about his bill's chances: "Things couldn't look worse."

Pavicic understands the game. He knows that passing bills over powerful interests is difficult, but he believes this issue should transcend political maneuvering.

"What it really boils down to is, what kind of people are we? What kind of society are we? Do this because it's right."

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