The Kennedy Forum and the Steinberg Institute have partnered to increase access to mental health and addiction care in California through SB 855.

View infographic on SB 855 here.


Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, America was facing a serious mental health and addiction crisis:

  • Roughly 71,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2019.
  • In California, there was a 12.7% increase in the drug overdose rate from 2018 to 2019, more than in all but five states.
  • Nearly 1 in 6 adults in California currently experience mental illness, and 1 in 24 have a serious mental illness that makes it difficult to carry out major life activities.
  • One in 13 children in California has an emotional disturbance that limits participation in daily activities.

Experts agree, the isolation, unemployment, trauma, anxiety, and grief caused by COVID-19 are taking a profound toll on Americans’ already poor state of mental health. Not surprisingly, calls to crisis hotlines have increased dramatically. Other red flags:

  • According to the Census Bureau’s emergency weekly survey of U.S. households that took place at the end of April, a third of Americans now show signs of clinical anxiety or depression. Rates of anxiety and depression were far higher among younger adults, women and the poor. Nearly four in ten Californians are now showing signs of clinical anxiety, or depression, or both.
  • According to May data from Mental Health America’s online screening program, more than 88,000 additional people have developed anxiety or depression as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and more than 21,000 depression screeners reported thinking of suicide or self-harm on more than half of the days.
  • The American Psychological Association’s latest “Stress in America” report showed stress levels have risen to numbers not seen since the Great Recession.
  • Alcohol sales spiked in late March, rising 55 percent compared with the same period a year earlier.
  • Past research has shown that for each 1 percentage point increase in unemployment, suicide rates can increase between 1% and 1.6%. California has had 4,452,894 unemployment claims since mid-March—the most in the nation.

Some models estimate that California alone could suffer over 22,500 additional deaths of despair (i.e. deaths from suicides, overdoses, alcohol poisoning, or liver disease caused by alcohol) due to a COVID-19 recession.


Now, more than ever, Californians must be able to get help through their health insurance plans without facing tremendous out-of-pocket costs.

By holding insurers accountable for equal coverage of mental health and addiction treatment services, Senate Bill 855, authored by Senator Scott Wiener, will increase access to care for families across the state. It is an essential component of California’s COVID-19 recovery:

  • Insurers often deny coverage of treatment as “not medically necessary,” using flawed guidelines that are designed to cut costs. SB 855 would require them to make coverage determinations using nationally recognized standards of care.
  • To achieve the best outcomes, mental health and addiction concerns must be addressed before stage four. Health insurers don’t deny coverage for people seeking cancer screenings. Why should it be any different for someone seeking help for depression, an eating disorder, or alcoholism? Early interventions are key to long-term recovery.
  • In addition to helping Californians access care, SB 855 will reduce the enormous costs to Medi-Cal and other public programs associated with untreated mental health and substance use disorders, which can sometimes lead to homelessness or disability. Consider that for every $1 spent on substance use treatment, there is approximately $7 in monetary benefits to society.



Senate Bill 855 is sponsored by The Kennedy Forum and the Steinberg Institute.

We would like to thank the following organizations for their support of SB 855:

Alkermes, Inc; American Foundation for Suicide Prevention; Anaheim Lighthouse; Angels at Risk; APLA Health; Association of Regional Service Agencies; Autism Deserves Equal Coverage;California Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology; California Academy of Physician Assistants; California Access Coalition; California Alliance of Child & Family Services; California Association of Alcohol and Drug Program Executives, Inc.; California Association of Local Behavioral Health Boards and Commissions; California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (CAMFT); California Association of Public Hospitals and Health Systems; California Association of Veteran Services Agencies (CAVSA); California Children’s Hospital Association; California Children’s Trust; California Consortium of Addiction Programs and Professionals (CCAPP); California Council of Community Behavioral Health Agencies; California Insurance Commissioner, Ricardo Lara; California Judges Association; California LGBTQ Health and Human Services Network; California Narcotic Officers Association; California Pan-Ethnic Health Network; California Psychiatric Association; California Psychological Association; California State Association of Counties (CSAC); California State PTA; California Society of Addiction Medicine; Cal Voices; Children Now; City of San Jose; Crestwood Behavioral Health Inc.; Congress of California Seniors; Consumer Attorneys of California; County Behavioral Health Directors Association of California (CBHDA); Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance California; Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services; Disability Rights California; Drug Policy Alliance; Friends Committee on Legislation of California; GLIDE; Hathaway-Sycamores; Health Access; HealthRIGHT 360; Helpline Youth Counseling Inc.; Latino Coalition for a Healthy California; Legal Action Center; Los Angeles Board of Supervisors; Los Angeles LGBT Center; Los Angeles Reentry Partnership; Mental Health America of California; Mental Health America of Los Angeles; Mental Health and Autism Insurance Project; Mental Health Association of San Francisco; Mental Health Oversight and Accountability Commission (MHOAC), Momentum United; National Association of Social Workers, California; National Alliance on Mental Illness California (NAMI-CA); NAMI Sonoma County; NAMI Yolo County; National Health Law Program; National Center for Youth Law; National Union of Healthcare Workers; Orange County Recovery Collaboration; Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California; San Francisco AIDS Foundation; Service Employees International Union (SEIU) California; Shatterproof; Sutter Health; Western Center on Law and Poverty

The Kennedy Forum would also like to thank Sutter Health for generously supporting work to advance mental health parity in California.