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With Jim Ramstad’s death, Minnesota has lost a committed recovery advocate

That commitment led Ramstad to advocate for and ultimately see passage of a groundbreaking federal law that requires insurance companies to pay equally for mental and physical health benefits, including addiction treatment.

Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act
President Geroge W. Bush signing The Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act on October 3, 2008. Left to right: Sens. Pete Domenici and Edward Kennedy, and Reps. Patrick Kennedy and Jim Ramstad.
White House photo by Eric Draper

It happened all the time.

Rep. Jim Ramstad would get a call, often from a total stranger — or maybe a colleague, or a friend of a colleague. Someone they knew — sometimes even the caller — was caught in the throes of addiction: They’d heard Ramstad tell his own story of addiction and recovery and were hoping against hope that he could help. 

These requests seemed beyond the job description of a powerful member of the U.S. House of Representatives, but Ramstad, say his relatives, friends and colleagues, took it as his personal mission to help anyone see that recovery is possible. He felt so blessed in his own recovery from alcoholism, they explain, that he wanted to help as many other people as possible. 

Ramstad’s sister Sheryl Ramstad said she often called her older brother into service. 

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“I recall so many times when I would ask Jim to help a work colleague’s son or daughter or a friend’s spouse who was struggling with chemical dependency,” she said. “He was always willing to talk to anyone about sobriety, help them find a treatment bed, or take them to an AA meeting. It didn’t matter who needed help, he was willing to be there for them and to support them through their journey.” 

Former Rep. Jim Ramstad
Former Rep. Jim Ramstad
That commitment to recovery led Ramstad, with years of focused effort, to advocate for and ultimately see passage of The Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008, a groundbreaking federal law that requires insurance companies to pay equally for mental and physical health benefits, including addiction treatment. Ramstad served as Minnesota’s Third Congressional District representative from 1991 until 2009.

Ramstad died on Thursday at age 74. He was known not only for his personal commitment to sobriety but also for his unfailing ability to reach across the political aisle to ensure that the important work could get done.  

Dean Peterson, Ramstad’s chief of staff from 1995 to 2009, said that his former boss was committed above all else to helping others do the work of achieving and maintaining sobriety. This meant that he formed close ties with lawmakers from across the political spectrum. 

Ramstad’s partnership with Sen. Paul Wellstone was perhaps the most fruitful; until Wellstone’s death on Oct. 25, 2002, the two worked tirelessly to craft and promote legislation aimed at ending health plan discrimination against people living with mental illness and addiction. A moderate Republican, Ramstad also helped bridge the gap between Wellstone and Pete Domenici, the long-serving conservative senator from New Mexico. 

“He was all about public service, and one of his core legislative values was problem-solving in a bipartisan way,” Peterson said. Ramstad wasn’t in the fight to boost his own ego, he added: “It was his idea to name it the ‘Wellstone-Domenici Act.’”

Carol McDaid
Carol McDaid
Carol McDaid, principal of Capitol Decisions, a Washington, D.C.-based government-relations firm specializing in addiction and mental health policy, worked closely with Ramstad in his efforts to promote mental health and addiction parity. She said that in the now-distant 1990s, Ramstad and Wellstone’s partnership was seen as groundbreaking and even controversial.  

“Jim worked with Paul when it was the height of the reign of Newt Gingrich and his Contract With America,” McDaid explained. “Even back then, it was wholly uncharacteristic for a Republican to reach across the aisle to work with a Democrat who at the time was the most liberal senator in the Senate.”

The Ramstad-Wellstone partnership went much deeper than political theater, McDaid added:  “They not only worked together but were also extremely affable and very respectful of Paul’s family’s recovery and Jim’s personal recovery.” 

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Paul Anderson is a Republican Minnesota state senator representing District 44 in the western Twin Cities. He was Ramstad’s district director for 5½ years and campaign manager from 2000 to 2002. 

What set Ramstad apart from other career politicians, Anderson said, was his sincere commitment to public service. 

“He had something that he would say in almost every public setting,” Anderson recalled. “He’d say, ‘I don’t take myself seriously. I take my job really seriously.’ This wasn’t just words: If anyone knows Jim Ramstad and has had him in their lives, they know he cares about people almost as much as anyone I’ve ever known.”

An inauspicious start 

Ramstad’s commitment to sobriety began July 31, 1981, when he woke up in a South Dakota jail cell after being arrested for disorderly conduct. He had been elected to the Minnesota Senate just months earlier, and this arrest felt like the worst-possible thing that could happen in Ramstad’s personal — not mention his professional — life.

“He was certain that his career was done,” Peterson said. “He had an adviser at the time who said, ‘Just be honest, Jim.’ He followed that dictate ever since.” Rather than being the liability he feared it could be, Peterson said, Ramstad discovered that “Minnesotans appreciated his candor and the honesty. It was quite a lesson for him, and hopefully for others going forward.”  

Peterson said his former boss soon learned to embrace an open approach to his addiction and recovery story. 

“He’d do media interviews and he’d get calls from all over the country, from mothers whose kids were on meth and they had no idea what to do, or wives who didn’t know what to do about their alcoholic husbands struggling with their own drinking.”

Those closest to him said that Ramstad relished the opportunity to help others. “He’d take calls on his off hours and work with people under the 12-step model of work,” Peterson said. “He modeled that what you saw publicly was what he did privately, too. It was his personal legacy of service and love and doing the next right thing.”

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That ethic inspired members of Ramstad’s staff to take an ethical, service-minded approach to their work, Peterson said. “Jim’s legacy is what kept me on the Ramstad team for so long. It was a cohesive and dedicated unit of people that really stuck around.” 

William Cope Moyers
Ramstad knew that many people were inspired by his life story, and he chose to use the combined power of that story and his political position to make serious political change, said William Cope Moyers, vice president of public affairs and community relations for Hazelden Betty Ford. In his early days at Hazelden, Moyers worked with Ramstad and Wellstone as a legislative advocate on their parity work.  

Ramstad, Moyers said, chose to use his personal story to inspire others to action. 

“Jim talked about the power of redemption, that he got another chance after he was locked up in a jail cell,” Moyers said. “It wasn’t just about telling stories. It was about telling stories in the context of the policy. The issue was in this case ending discrimination by insurance companies.” 

When Ramstad sought inpatient treatment for his alcoholism, his state senator’s health insurance paid the bill. But that wasn’t the case for most people seeking addiction treatment at that time, Moyers said. When he was elected to Congress, Ramstad was willing to take on powerful insurance companies in this fight, something that many legislators were never brave enough to do. 

“They were not paying equally,” Moyers said. “Candidly, they were discriminating against people with addiction and mental illness. Jim knew this was wrong, and he was determined to do whatever he could do to make a change. It just felt unfair.” 

Strange bedfellows

Ramstad’s quest to make mental health parity the law of the land was 12 years in the making and it took six more years to get all the regulations completed. To achieve his aims, he partnered with people of all political and personal backgrounds. 

While these partnerships ultimately were what gave the legislation the power it needed to succeed, in the early years Ramstad was alone in his efforts on the Republican side of the House, Peterson said. 

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“It took quite some time to get that legislation signed,” Peterson said. “He was a one-person marketing team. He made it his mission to talk to the media about it. He gave speeches, wrote op-eds. The bill itself was really quite a confluence of serendipitous factors and skilled legislative actors.” 

In the bill’s early years, Republican leaders were not happy with Ramstad’s bipartisan approach to advancing his cause, McDaid said. For many high-profile members of Congress, Ramstad’s strong partnership with Wellstone was a serious sticking point. 

“He took heat about that friendship,” she said.  

When the bill finally made its way to the House, McDaid recalled, Ramstad strongly objected to its wording. 

“They were trying at the time to make the parity bill about abstinence-based only,” McDaid said. “Jim was not inclined in that direction and let the speaker know. He was ahead of his time in some ways about that.” Ramstad reluctantly lent his support to the bill. 

When that version of the bill didn’t move forward, McDaid said, “Jim was like, ‘We’re never going to push that kind of thing again. We’re never going to cut people out.’” Ramstad, who held a seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, was emboldened to put his neck out to advocate for change, she added: “He was willing to take a risk by taking on the health insurance industry.”  

Ultimately, Ramstad was able to push the legislation forward by building an even broader base of support. After Wellstone’s death, he gained key support in the Senate from Ted Kennedy. Ramstad had sponsored his son Patrick Kennedy through his very public battle with addiction. 

“Jim was kind and loving and helpful to Patrick,” McDaid said. “Patrick had a posse of people whose paid employment was to minimize the impact of his addiction instead of supporting his recovery. Jim built him a new posse of people who supported his recovery and didn’t cover up his addiction.” 

When the Wellstone-Domenici Act was signed into law by President George W. Bush, Ramstad was joined by a group of individuals who were brought together by their own experiences with addiction and mental illness, Peterson recalled. 

“Domenici and Wellstone both brought their own personal and family experiences with mental illness,” Peterson said. “Then you had Ted Kennedy dying of brain cancer at the time and you had Patrick Kennedy, who’d had a very public travail and Jim reaching out to him right away and helping walk him through. Then you had a president who’d had his own struggles with addiction who was willing to sign this bill.”

That combination of factors, Peterson said, led to “this confluence of five or six major actors each of whom had their own personal connection to the issue. I don’t know if you call that divine intervention or what.”  

Significant impact

Though Ramstad had a successful career in the House, holding powerful committee positions and winning elections in a divided district by comfortable margins, Anderson believes that Ramstad will be best known for his legacy of achieving legal support for mental health and addiction parity. 

State Sen. Paul Anderson
State Sen. Paul Anderson
“It was Jim’s greatest accomplishment,” Anderson said. “In many ways it was his purpose in Congress. Many people serve for a long time and don’t leave that legacy of achieving really transformational legislation like he did.”  

Without Ramstad’s tireless commitment, Moyers added, the legislation would likely have died well before it made it to Bush’s desk. 

“Jim almost singlehandedly rallied Republicans to this issue,” Moyers said. He also inspired Democrats like Wellstone with his honesty about his personal story: “If not for Jim Ramstad we wouldn’t have parity. We just wouldn’t have it.” 

Since the Wellstone-Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act became law, millions of Americans have received health care coverage for mental health and addiction treatment, Anderson said. Ramstad’s willingness to reach out to others regardless of political affiliation made this significant legislation possible, he added. 

“It’s amazing how many lives Jim’s touched. In today’s very polarized political environment we need more people like Jim Ramstad.” 

Moyers said that Ramstad will long be remembered for his ability to take his life’s most terrible moments and use them to do good. “Jim really was a shining example of turning adversity into opportunity. He used his own experience to help others, ultimately millions of others, through parity.”

Sheryl Ramstad
Sheryl Ramstad
Sheryl Ramstad said that her family will always be proud of her brother’s accomplishments. He’d say that one of his greatest achievements, she added, was establishing the Ramstad Recovery Fund to provide treatment for veterans and others in need. 

“Nothing brought him more pleasure than for us to donate to the fund as a gift for his birthday or Christmas,” Sheryl said. “He has always been willing to give selflessly of himself to others, without expecting to receive anything in return. His reward was seeing people succeed in their recovery.” 

The people Ramstad helped knew that he would be in their corner for life, Sheryl Ramstad said.  Her brother was laser-focused on introducing the life-changing miracle of recovery: “He always reached across the aisle and focused on getting the work done regardless of party affiliation.” Jim Ramstad’s singular commitment was to recovery, she added. “It was who he was.”