Bill Would Expand 1996 Mental Health Parity Measure
The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee is expected to vote today on a "new, expanded version" of the 1996 mental health parity law, set to expire this fall, that will expand the measure to include doctors' visits and hospital stays, the AP/New York Times reports. The 1996 bill required parity "only for annual and lifetime benefits" provided to patients, but the new version, proposed by Sens. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) and Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), would keep insurers from limiting hospital stays and physician visits for mental health treatment. Wellstone said, "The big problem [with the original law] was that people were cut off from the very beginning, so how much you spent in a year or in a lifetime was beside the point." The legislation requires employers that offer mental health coverage to provide the same level of coverage for mental health services that they do for physical health services, and requires insurers to charge the same co-payments and deductibles for mental health services that they do for physical health. It does not require companies to offer mental health coverage as part of employee benefits, and the Senate version of the bill does not mandate equal coverage for substance abuse treatment. The House version of the bill includes parity for substance abuse treatment, but a debate on the measure has not yet been scheduled in that chamber. Supporters of the law expect it to face a vote in the full Senate by the end of the session, the AP/Times reports.
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Critics of the measure say that it will be a financial burden on employers. James Klein, president of the American Benefits Council, said that the bill "would be one of the most restrictive and intrusive requirements ever imposed by Congress on the health benefits voluntarily offered by employers to their employees," adding that many employers would drop mental health coverage if faced with such requirements. Congressional budget analysts estimate that the new measure would increase insurance premiums for individuals by about 1% per year. Ralph Ibson, a lobbyist with the National Mental Health Association, said that premiums in the states that have enacted mental health parity laws "have not risen beyond workers' means" (AP/New York Times, 8/1).