House Bill Ups Mental Health Coverage
Proposal Requires Insurance Companies to Offer Similar Coverage for Mental and Physical Health
March 5, 2008 -- The House passed a broad bill guaranteeing better mental
health coverage for people with private insurance Wednesday, handing a
victory to patient and medical groups that championed the bill.
The bill enforces mental health "parity." It forces insurance
companies covering mental health treatment to offer the same level of coverage
for it as they do for physical illnesses.
Current federal law requires insurers to cover the same amount of total
lifetime spending for mental and physical diseases. But it leaves insurers free
to charge higher co-pays and deductibles for mental illness treatment. It also
lets them restrict the number of covered visits to a doctor or other mental
health professional. Most insurance companies make use of such
"Mental illness deserves treatment, and people who suffer from mental
illness deserve to have their diseases covered by their health plans," says
Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., who is a clinical psychologist.
"I urge my colleagues to vote against discrimination," says Rep.
Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the House Democratic Leader.
Many mental health patient groups and medical societies have long fought for
the bill. Congress has tried and failed to pass similar legislation for more
than a decade. Some groups, including the National Alliance on Mental Illness,
backed the Senate version, saying it was more likely to be signed into law.
Reconciling House and Senate Bills
Many of those same groups remain skeptical that Wednesday's bill can be
reconciled with a significantly weaker version that passed the Senate late last
That bill allows insurers to choose which mental illnesses to cover. It also
would negate potentially stronger state parity laws. Forty-two states have some
form of parity on their books now.
Several conservative senators have already threatened to block the House and
Senate from meeting to reconcile the two bills.
Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M, a key Republican co-sponsor of the Senate parity
bill, says a final agreement could be impossible because the House was intent
on passing a broad parity bill.
"I'm very sorry that they are. I worked very hard to try to convince
them that we won't get health parity with that bill because we can't pass it in
the Senate," he tells WebMD. Domenici, a champion of mental health
treatment, has a daughter with schizophrenia.
The House bill doesn't require insurers to cover mental illness. Instead it
requires those that already do to follow the new restrictions. It also exempts
firms employing 50 workers or less and allows employers to opt out if their
costs go up more than 2% in the first year.