After over a decade of struggling and aborted attempts, Congress passed a bill yesterday that provides for equal treatment of mental health, alcohol and substance abuse disorders, ending a decades’ long practice of discrimination against these concerns by insurance companies and employers.
The bill will end the practice of setting higher co-payments and limiting mental health access to treatments to people covered by insurance plans in the U.S. It requires that mental health treatment limits be equal to the limits for standard medical and surgical care, and shared strong bipartisan and Presidential support.
“We’ve always had a stigma, sort of like mental illness is a character flaw,” Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (D-R.I.) told the Washington Post. Kennedy who has struggled with drug and alcohol addiction and co-sponsored the House version with Rep. Jim Ramstad (R-Minn.), a recovering alcoholic. “But now science has moved forward, and we can see the complexities in the brain that lead to eating disorders, compulsive disorders. All these connections are being made, the science is just becoming so firm. And it destroys the myth that this stuff is a choice.”
The new bill ends discrimination for mental health treatment payment and coverage in the U.S. In the past, insurers might refuse to cover more than 20 or 30 visits a year to a psychotherapist. A patient under the existing system would also typically have to make higher co-payments for mental health treatment, such as paying 40 percent or more for a mental health specialist, but only paying 20 percent of the cost for visiting a cancer specialist.
The only remaining hurdle the bill now faces in how to pay for the increased costs of the new mandated coverage. The House approved funding in a stand-alone bill, while the Senate included the funding in a larger bill that includes funding and tax credits unrelated to mental health.
The Senate has stalled in approving legislation this week as it deals with the financial crisis in investment banks and proposed $700 billion bailout proposal by the Treasury department.
Congress will recess in a few days for a scheduled break and it’s unclear whether they’ll pass the necessary funding legislation before the break.
Small businesses of less than 50 employees are exempt from the new regulations.
This is not the first time Congress has attempted to address this disparity. Under a 1996 law, health plans were forbidden to set annual or lifetime dollar limits on mental health care that were lower than the limits for other services. Insurance companies, however, have gotten around the requirement by simply charging higher co-payments and setting stricter limits for mental health services.
Over 110 million Americans will be positively affected by the new legislation.
Source: Wire and news reports