September 15, 2005

The Battle for Mental Health Coverage

Mental health coverage is something that many individuals have to battle with insurance companies for. The battle for mental health coverage has made some headway over the years although it has not reached equal status (or equal coverage) with physical illnesses or physical wounds. Unfortunately one's ability to stay mentally healthy is limited by how much money one has in the bank. This article, written by Madeleine Baran of The New Standard (a non-profit/ anticommercial news organization), goes over the bill that could lead to full mental health coverage if congress decides to pass it.

Every year, thousands of people with mental illness must struggle to stay healthy despite insurance plans that limit the maximum number of psychiatric hospital stays, therapy visits, and other treatment. Unlike coverage for diseases like cancer or AIDS, coverage for mental illness is often capped at certain levels regardless of patients’ needs.

Now, a bipartisan group of lawmakers, advocates, doctors and people living with mental illness are calling for passage of a bill that would mandate comprehensive and equal mental health coverage on a national level.

Last February, Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM) introduced the Senator Paul Wellstone Mental Health Equitable Treatment Act, which would would require companies with more than 50 employees to provide health insurance plans with equal coverage for mental and physical illnesses. Under the bill, named after the late Minnesota senator, himself a long-time advocate for mental health coverage, health plans that covered physical illness would be required to cover mental illness as well.

Although the legislation has 69 Senate and 246 House co-sponsors and the support of over 300 health organizations, including the American Medical Association, it has languished in various committees. The Senate is expected to eventually bring it to a vote after some negotiations, but the bill is completely stalled in the House, where Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) has refused to let it come to a vote. Even President Bush has expressed support, although some of the bill’s proponents complain that he has not done much work to see it passed.

Without pressure, many are skeptical that Hastert will change his handling of the bill. In 2003, according to an article in Washington HealthBeat, he joked to reporters: "They want to make the co-pays the same for a broken leg and a mental health condition. What mental health condition is at parity with a broken leg?" Hastert’s office has not returned calls for comment.

Mental health advocates say that the bill is urgently needed, and that any additional delays will only result in more tragedy. "Everyday that lawmakers wait to act on this is a day that folks are suffering needlessly," said Christopher Burley, spokesperson for the Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health, a legal advocacy group for people with mental disabilities. Mental health advocates say recent research bolsters their argument. Although for many years doctors, insurers and the general public believed physical and mental illness had little in common, that thinking has changed in the past several decades. New exploration into the biological origins of diseases like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia has led many to view mental illness like any other condition. The flood of memoirs written by people living with mental illness has also contributed to a change in public perception.

Source: Mental Illness Survivors Demand Parity in Medical Coverage (the full article can be viewed here). The New Standard. By Madeleine Baran.

Learn more about the Senator Paul Wellstone Mental Health Equitable Treatment Act and other mental health parity laws here: http://www.nrpa.org/content/default.aspx?documentId=987

The NASW (National Association of Social Workers) goes over what you can do to help make sure that this bill gets passed. Mental health parity is important for everyone: http://www.naswdc.org/advocacy/updates/2004/041404.asp

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