At Long Last, Mental Health Parity Bill Passes House & Senate!

After years of being dragged in some form across the congressional floor, H.R. 6983 (The Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008) finally passed the House on Sept. 23rd.  After clearing the House it was then attached as a companion bill to the economic bailout package, which was passed by the Senate this week.

This bill was somewhat of a swansong for Senator Pete Domenici (R- NM), who has a daughter diagnosed with schizophrenia, and who has been pushing for parity in mental health coverage for over two decades. It was one of Senator Domenici’s final votes as he will leave his office after this year.

If you don’t want to read the entire legislation, a helpful fact sheet was provided by MarketWatch:

  • The legislation applies to group health plans of 51 or more employees.
  • If a plan offers out-of-network benefits for medical or surgical care, it must also offer out-of-network coverage for mental health and addiction treatment and provide services at parity.
  • Strong state parity and consumer protection laws are preserved while extending parity protection to 82 million more people who are not protected by state laws and 31 million in plans that are subject to state regulation.
  • The legislation also establishes an important oversight mechanism to determine if insurers are discriminating against certain conditions or failing to cover some treatments.

In sum, the bill ends higher copays and deductibles for mental health care (and includes substance abuse treatment).  There also can no longer be limits on the number of visits to therapists.

The bill does not require group health plans to cover mental health or addiction treatment at all.  But when plans decide to do so, the coverage must be equal to other medical coverage provided.  One hopes that in this economy this important measure will not have the unintended consequence of motivating plans to remove mental health benefits entirely from their benefits package.  If anyone reading has thoughts on this, I’d love to hear your analysis.

H.R. 6983 was long overdue.  Now that the President has signed this bill into law, it will help erase the artificial boundary between the brain and the rest of the body that has fostered much unfair stigma and discrimination.  There really is no sharp division between “mental” and “physical” health.  There’s only health.  And even if last week’s policiticking over the economic bailout package was branded “Washington at its Worst,” one could argue that the strong bi-partisan support for the mental health parity legislation in the House was Washington at its Best.  Or, by placing it in a package that was logrolling with momentum through the Senate, perhaps this was just Washington at its Most Clever.

Either way, it’s a big win for civil rights for the (hope this term soon disappears) mentally ill.