Addiction Field Mourns Passing of Sen. Paul Wellstone

Feature Story
By Bob Curley

The tragic death of Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) on Friday led to an outpouring of grief and accolades for a leader that Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle called “one of the most noble and courageous men I have ever known,” and President Bush called “a man of deep convictions, a plain-spoken fellow who did his best for his state and for his country.”

Many in the addiction field, however, bestowed a simpler but more meaningful title on Wellstone: friend.

Wellstone, 58, was killed when the small plane he was flying in crashed into a wooded area in northern Minnesota. Also killed in the crash were Wellstone's wife, Sheila, daughter, Marcia, and five others, including the two pilots.

An unabashed liberal in an era where that political label has almost become a dirty word, Wellstone was a consistent supporter of the rights of people with addictions to access health care, and an advocate for shifting the nation's anti-drug resources away from supply reduction and towards treatment and prevention.

Along with Rep. Jim Ramstad (R-Minn.), Wellstone co-sponsored the Drug and Alcohol Addiction Recovery Act of 2001, which called for parity in health coverage between addiction and other diseases. At a November 2001 national summit of recovery advocates in St. Paul, Minn., Wellstone delivered an impassioned address to hail the launch of what he called a new civil-rights movement.

“Together, we can take on stigma,” said Wellstone at the Faces and Voices of Recovery meeting. “I call on you today to be the national voice for recovery. Be a community of one, unified, to be a powerful voice in our nation's capital and in the states. Let us organize to change the way we talk about addiction, as an illness, to change the focus from controlling behavior to recovery. Don't settle for second-class treatment of people in recovery.”

Ramstad said he was “completely overwhelmed” by Wellstone's death. “I have lost my good friend and partner in the fight for people with chemical addiction, and will always be grateful to Senator Wellstone for his tireless efforts to provide chemical dependency treatment for more Americans,” said Ramstad.

“More than any other member of the United States Senate, Senator Wellstone believed that it is wrong to discriminate against people struggling to overcome problems caused by addiction to alcohol or other drugs,” said William Cope Moyers, vice president of the Minnesota-based Hazelden Foundation. “He fought hard, against incredible opposition from powerful lobbyists and ambivalence from his own colleagues, for passage of federal legislation to improve private insurance coverage for treatment. In 1996, Senator Wellstone did succeed in improving coverage for mental illnesses, but could not convince Congress to include alcoholism and drug addiction treatment in the legislation. Still, he never gave up.”

Moyers credited Wellstone for helping spark the recovery-advocacy movement that has taken shape in recent years. “Senator Wellstone was a passionate champion of what we do at Hazelden. His loss is immeasurable,” said Moyers. “Whether he was your senator or not, Paul Wellstone was the champion for people who have been touched by addiction or recovery.”

Susan Rook, communications director for Faces and Voices of Recovery, said she counted Paul and Sheila Wellstone — the latter an advocate on the issue of violence against women — among the handful of people she trusted implicitly. “They were responsible for me going public to advocate on behalf of people in recovery,” said Rook, a former CNN talk-show host who revealed her own history with addiction to lobby for parity legislation.
“I was unsure whether I wanted to get in the public eye again,” Rook recalled. “Paul and Sheila talked to me a lot. She was gentle and he was more persistent — he said I had a civic duty to participate.”

That was typical of the Wellstones' style. Rook said the couple never wavered from their principles, or lost their compassion and sense of good will even in the face of the worst Washington cynicism.

“His loss is not in terms of legislation, but in leadership,” said Rook. “He led by example, and now it is up to us in the addiction field to do the same.”

“Paul Wellstone was carrying us on his broad and strong back toward a more decent society,” added David Rosenbloom, director of Join Together. “As we mourn him, we must honor him by continuing on the path he so boldly and honestly set.”

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