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SEEKING HELP FROM 'TIMOTHY'S LAW'

Seven weeks before his 13th birthday -- in March 2001 -- Timothy O'Clair of Schenectedy died by suicide, his trophies broken, his dresser drawers emptied with clothes heaped on the floor. The 12-year-old with the heart of gold decided he just couldn't take life any more.

The boy's death has sparked a movement by family and friends in Albany to eliminate unequal insurance coverage for mental health and chemical dependency services by state regulated insurance companies. "Timothy's Law," introduced in the State Assembly last month, expands on the Federal Mental Health Parity Act, enacted in 1996 and renewed again in 2002.

"Had this been implemented years ago, we're sure Timothy would still be here with us," said Tom O'Clair, Timothy's father, during a phone interview from his Schenectedy home. "It's so unfair -- not only to children -- but to anybody suffering with a mental health issue to not be allowed the frequency of care needed. It's discriminatory."

At age 8, Timothy suffered from attention deficit disorder that eventually developed into serious temper problems. At the end of fourth grade, he refused to attend school. His first inpatient admission was in 1998. Later that year -- just before Christmas and after throwing rags into the home furnace -- Timothy was admitted again, this time for eight days, as much as the family insurance would cover.

"Plain and simple, Timothy was unable to get the insurance coverage he needed," said Michael Seereiter, director of public policy for the Mental Health Association. "With mental health, you exhaust 30 days of inpatient, and you're gone. There's a limit of 20 outpatient visits. The O'clairs were even forced to relinquish custody of their son to make him medicaid eligible."

In New York State, when a child goes into foster care, he automatically becomes eligible for Medicaid, which will pay for all the services insurance companies will not provide.

"That was very difficult," O'Clair said. "It broke our hearts, but that became the only way we had of getting the help we needed, through Social Services. We had great care providers. We just didn't have the access to them we needed."

In passing "Timothy's Law," New York State would join 32 states that have enacted insurance parity legislation.

"He had threatened to harm himself," said O'Clair. "He said he wanted to die. He said he didn't want to be here. He attempted on different occasions, and being in denial ourselves that we can't help this child, we would tell ourselves that he wasn't serious. I would tell him that I didn't want to hear that, not knowing that it was a warning sign, and yes, he really does feel that way."

e-mail: jkwiatkowski@buffnews.com

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