Saturday, October 18, 2008

New Bill Explaination

Here is one good explaination of the new mental health bill that was passed tagged along with our bail-out plan.

Parity legislation helps people with mental illness


More than one in four Americans will suffer a mental or addictive disorder at some point in life. Lawmakers have now granted them a level playing field in health insurance. Congress took a historic step when, as part of the financial bailout package, it passed legislation prohibiting insurers from discriminating against people with mental illness and addictive disorders.

This is great news for the 113 million Americans who faced unequal treatment under insurance plans that apply tougher benefit limits or higher copayments for mental illness or addiction treatment than they do for medical and surgical conditions.

For decades, science has been gradually lifting the curtain on mental illness and addiction, making effective treatment available for many disorders. With this watershed legislation, policymakers are helping to close the door on the age-old culture of stigma toward people with mental illness or addictive disorders.

The bill's passage may prove unexpectedly well-timed. With the economy in trouble, there will undoubtedly be more need for mental health services. Research shows that economic recessions lead to more family stress, suicides, drug abuse among teenagers and binge drinking.

News of the bill's passage was buried by the drama-filled bailout. Indeed, some derided it as an earmark tacked on to the package, like the one for wooden arrows. These comments were off-target. The parity legislation was not a random item sheltered by the rescue package.

Leaders in both houses had been vigorously discussing the bill for months, and had largely approved it. It was the culmination of years of bipartisan efforts by Sens. Ted Kennedy, Pete Domenici and the late Paul Wellstone, and Reps. Patrick Kennedy and Jim Ramstad, among many others.

Mental illness has long been a target for discriminatory practices in private insurance markets. As a result, starting in the 1990s many states, among them Washington, passed parity laws, and the federal government passed a limited law in 1996.

But those measures had large loopholes. States often exempted important diagnoses such as addictions and eating disorders. Moreover, 82 million people are covered by employers exempt from state regulation. As for the federal law, it banned only special dollar limits on mental health coverage, allowing plans to continue using other limits and exclusions.

A Brandeis University survey of private health plans found that more than 90 percent had special annual limits on outpatient mental health and addiction treatment, and 40 percent required substantial copayments (more than $20 per visit, or 20 percent of charges). Those provisions result in high out-of-pocket costs for patients needing longer treatments.

The new federal law improves on the 1996 one in a variety of ways. First, it applies to addictions as well as mental health. Addictions are one area where the public and the patient benefit considerably from treating the problem. Successful treatment should reduce crime, car accidents and emergency room use, all of which impose costs on society. Arbitrarily limiting addiction treatment makes little sense.

Second, the new law prohibits a wider range of discriminatory practices, such as the use of special limits on the number of days or visits per treatment episode or per year. Those changes should improve access and reduce the cost for many of the millions suffering from these disorders. However, large increases in utilization are unlikely under managed care. Plans retain the ability to deny or curtail treatment based on their review criteria (although they must now disclose those criteria).

The bill applies only to people with private insurance, but sets a good precedent for mental health coverage in any future expansion of coverage to the uninsured. It's tragic that people with mental and addictive disorders are overrepresented in this group.

With any luck, the bailout will avert an economic depression. But just in case, it's critical that many more people now have better mental health coverage to weather good times and bad.


Tom said...


This article is the best I have seen so far in explaining the context, content, and limitations of the new parity bill. Regardless of the circumstances that finally moved the bill to passage, the end result is a huge step in the right direction for people with mental illness and/or addiction and their families and friends. Members of our support group for the family and friends of anyone with a mental illness will be happy to see some of the specifics of the bill and how it can help them. Thanks for this very helpful article.

Tom Smith
Author of "A Balanced Life" and Co-Founder of the Karla Smith Foundation

Liz said...

Tom, Thanks for reading and keeping yourself informed about the issues. As I said in my book about my mother, my dad literally spent thousands of dollars over the years for my mother's hospital stays. She never had insurance and he did not have any help with her until she qualified for medicare, then it was limited but at least it was better than nothing. My mentally ill loved one did not commit suicide but I have friends whose loved ones did, know that we feel your pain and do understand where you are.