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A Historic Vote for Mental Health Insurance

March 1, 2008 - by Donny Shaw

After more than a decade of delay, Congress appears ready to pass a bill to boost insurance coverage for the treatment of mental illnesses. The Paul Wellstone Mental Health and Addiction Equity Act of 2007 is designed to improve upon the Mental Health Parity Act passed in 1996 by the former senator after which it is named. While, the bill from ’96 barred insurers from setting lower dollar limits on mental health treatment than on other kinds of treatment, it left open the possibility of insurers putting other kinds of restrictions on mental health treatment coverage.

The current bill, which will be voted on by the House on Wednesday, doesn’t require insurers to provide coverage for mental health treatments, but it mandates that any mental health coverage provided by an insurer cannot be more restrictive, in any way, than the treatment they provides for medical and surgical benefits.

The Senate passed their version of the bill in September by unanimous consent, and the House version has racked up a bi-partisan list of co-sponsors totaling 273. But there is a discrepancy between the two versions of the bill that could become a problem once the two versions move to a conference committee to be reconciled. The House bill requires mental health coverage to include all disorders listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, some of which (i.e. air sickness or caffeine addiction) are considered questionable. The Senate bill’s list of covered disorders would be much less extensive.

Opponents to the more extensive coverage provided by the House bill argue that employers may balk at the new mandate and yank their mental health coverage all together.

Patrick Kennedy (D-RI), the bill’s primary sponsor (and pictured above) gives this pitch for the bill on his website:

>There is no medical reason to discriminate against mental health, and there is no financial reason either; every credible study of states’ experiences – and that of the 9 million member Federal Employee Health Benefits Program – implementing mental health parity has shown that mental health costs rise minimally, or fall, after the enactment of parity, as people gain greater access to less expensive forms of treatment. The current absence of mental health parity costs our society economically in many important ways, as research shows that better mental health care results in lower costs and savings to businesses in the form of lower absenteeism and higher productivity.

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