Bipolar Disorder is a Physical Illness, Says Judge
Trial Court Ruling Could Lead to Major
According to a report in the March 12, 2002 issue of The Wall
Street Journal, a ruling by U.S. District Judge Henry H. Kennedy Jr. opens up
new possibilities in the fight to obtain insurance coverage for bipolar
disorder. The case was Fitts v. Federal National Mortgage Association.
Jane Fitts was diagnosed bipolar in 1995 and had to leave her job with Fannie
Mae after working there 13 years. Her disability insurance coverage stopped
after just two years - because she was disabled by a mental, not a physical
illness. This left her with only Social Security income and with prescription
bills totaling $800-900 a month - close to half her remaining income. So she
took the insurance company to court.
Her first case, charging that mental health insurance caps violate the Americans
with Disabilities Act (ADA). This attempt, many others, failed. Courts have
ruled that there is nothing in the ADA preventing one type of disability from
being given lesser insurance coverage.
But this time the question was whether bipolar disorder should be covered under
the mental illness or physical illness portion of the insurance policy. Judge
Kennedy examined scientific evidence and ruled that Ms. Fitts is entitled to
disability insurance payments until age 65, according to policy provisions,
because bipolar disorder is a physical illness.
Among the scientific evidence the judge noted:
Scientific research has shown that bipolar disorder can be
inherited, and in Ms. Fitts case, two immediate family members have BP
The disorder was visible on brain scans.
Bipolar disorder is a neurobiological disorder characterized
by chemical imbalances in the brain.
Lawyers for the defense had argued that because bipolar disorder
is listed in the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders),
it must be a mental illness. But the judge pointed out that the DSM-IV itself
suggests that "the distinction between mental and physical disorders is a
Because this was a trial court, this ruling doesn't mean other
judges have to follow Judge Kennedy's decision automatically, but it does give
those with mental illnesses a new weapon in the arsenal.
NAMI's legal director Ron Honberg hailed the decision as "another step
toward ending discrimination based on myths and stigma."
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