Mental-Health Bill on Tap
By JANE ZHANG
Congress is on the verge of clearing legislation to require most employers and health insurers to put mental-health on par with physical illnesses.
That includes coverage for hospital stays and doctor visits, as well as co-payments and deductibles. Plans that offer out-of-network coverage for physical problems will have to add equivalent mental coverage.
But the legislation doesn't specify what disorders must be covered. Kathleen Mahieu, who heads behavioral health consulting at benefit-consulting firm Hewitt Associates LLC, said there is consensus that major problems such as serious depression, schizophrenia and substance abuse should be covered, but employers differ whether to cover autism, attention deficit disorder and some others. If coverage is rejected, the legislation requires the health plan to explain why.
Still, patient advocates welcomed the changes. "This is the biggest step we've ever taken in terms of integration of mental illness into the larger health care system," said Andrew Sperling, director of federal legislative advocacy for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Over the last 15 years, both the House and Senate had passed different versions of the bill, only to see them founder. This time, the bill has support of business and insurance groups. On Tuesday, the House passed a standalone bill and the Senate attached the same language to a tax measure. Now, the two chambers must reach agreement on how to pay the $3.4 billion cost over 10 years before lawmakers leave town.
The legislation doesn't require insurance plans sold to individuals, employers with fewer than 50 workers, or those that don't provide any health coverage, to offer mental health coverage.
It applies to about 150 million people: 82 million in federally regulated plans funded by employers, 31 million in state-regulated plans and 36 million children and adults covered by managed-care Medicaid programs, the federal-state health insurance for the poor, a Senate aide said.
The legislation ends such common restrictions as 30-day hospital stays or 30 visits to a mental health professional if the plan doesn't similarly curb treatment for physical problems, Ms. Mahieu said. Reimbursement rates for doctor visits or hospital stays must equal the percentage paid for physical illnesses.
About one in four employers told a Hewitt survey they already offer mental health parity, but it's unclear whether their plans would meet the bill's requirements. President Bush has signaled support; the legislation would be put into practice nationwide by January 2010 if it becomes law.
That will make a big difference for people like Loretta Geyer, a 51-year-old social worker in Euclid, Ohio. She said she spent $4,619 out-of-pocket on medical care last year, mostly to treat her bipolar disorder. To save money, she said she often waits to get treatment until her condition worsens.
Her therapist doesn't accept insurance coverage, and Ms. Geyer, who sees her often once a week, pays out-of-pocket and then seeks reimbursement from her insurer, which pays her for 40% of the first 10 visits a year after a $300 deductible.
Employees might find an increase in premiums or deductibles because of the legislation. A survey by the American Benefits Council, an industry group, found 39% of large employers said they will charge employees higher premiums, while one in four also said they would change benefits or adjust total compensation, including slowing down wage increases. One in 10 said they will do both.