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Martha Coakley to push mental health care

Will discuss loss of brother in speech

Attorney General Martha Coakley.

Associated Press/File 2011

Attorney General Martha Coakley.

Although Massachusetts has made great strides in providing quality health care to most residents, there is more work to be done, Attorney General Martha Coakley is set to say in a speech Friday. In particular, the state needs to increase access to mental health treatment, an issue that is deeply personal to Coakley: Her brother committed suicide in 1996.

Coakley, who is running for governor, has rarely spoken about his death during her long career as a public official, though she has brought it up more frequently in the past few years.

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“My younger brother Edward was a brilliant person — he was smart, funny, a great pianist. He also suffered from depression,” she is set to say in a speech at the Massachusetts Association of Health Plans’ annual conference in Boston. “When he was 33 years old, he committed suicide.”

“It is why I know first-hand — as many of you do — that behavior[al] health care is as vital to the treatment of many patients as physical health care,” Coakley is set to say, according to a copy of draft remarks provided to the Globe by her office.

Though the speech is being given in her capacity as attorney general, campaign aides believe the issues she will speak about — a call for greater parity in mental health care and for reducing the stigma of mental illness — are likely to be part of the policies she will highlight in her gubernatorial campaign.

But the speech provides few specifics and breaks little new ground, relying instead on sweeping rhetoric about making sure more people have access to mental health care.

“Providing timely, effective behavioral health services is a health quality issue, it’s a health cost issue, it’s a prevention issue, it’s a veteran’s issue, it’s a family issue. And it’s time to make it our issue,” she is set to say.

‘It is why I know first-hand . . . that behavior[al] health care is as vital to the treatment of many patients as physical health care.’

Martha Coakley, Massachusetts attorney general and gubernatorial candidate 
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In a telephone interview Thursday afternoon, Coakley described her brother’s long struggle with mental illness, which began when he was a senior in high school, and his resistance to getting treatment and taking medication. And she described learning about his suicide. “October 1996, I lived in Boston at the time, and I had a Boston police officer come to my door to tell me that my brother had killed himself,” she recalled.

Before his death, she said her brother worried that if he got mental health treatment, he would never find a job. The irony, Coakley said, was he was never able to get a job because he did not get mental health treatment. Coakley said the experience of losing him has prompted her push to reduce the stigma of mental illness.

One way to begin to do that is by increasing public awareness, which is why she said she has spoken about her brother’s suicide publicly more often in recent years. “I’ve done it more frequently because I recognize that every time I do, people always come up to me afterward and say: my child, my brother, my parent,” she said. “I recognize how much families and individuals still think they’re the only ones and they suffer in silence.”

Coakley’s speech comes as a furious debate over federal health care policy unfolds on the national stage over the troubled implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

Though the issue of health care overhaul has not really surfaced in what has, so far, been a low-key 2014 governor’s race here, that could change.

In an interview Wednesday, Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker, a former health care executive, lauded the current Massachusetts health care law but said he was concerned what the “overlay” of the federal law would mean for the state.

“I think the state ought to go back to the federal government and say, ‘Look, 96 percent of people are covered, what we’re doing here is working and we think we should be allowed to continue it,’ ” he said.

Among Coakley’s challengers for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2014: Treasurer Steven Grossman; Donald M. Berwick, a former Obama administration health care official; Joseph Avellone, a biotechnology executive; and Juliette N. Kayyem, a former state and federal homeland security official.

Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos.
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