Compromise on Mental Health Parity Remains Elusive
Negotiations over the Senate-passed mental health parity measure continued yesterday, but senior House Republicans and business groups remain "staunchly" opposed to a compromise that would expand the 1996 parity law but allow some businesses an exemption, the New York Times reports. Under a compromise deal first offered last week by Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.), the chair of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Health, employers that demonstrate to the government that their health care costs would rise by 1% or more would be exempted from the parity requirements of the Senate-passed measure, which, as it stands, would require insurers that provide mental health coverage to offer benefits at the same level as the benefits provided for physical health coverage. The Senate bill also would exempt businesses with fewer than 50 employees. But neither side is satisfied with Johnson's proposal. Backers of the Senate bill, including its sponsors, Sens. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) and Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), say the cost exemption should be higher. "It should be in the area of 2%," Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) said. But many employers are opposed to the parity measure, even with an exemption. Paul Dennett, vice president of the American Benefits Council, a trade group composed mainly of Fortune 500 companies, said, "[Rep.] Johnson's proposal is helpful but does not cure the underlying problem. Employers need flexibility in designing health benefits."
Adding to the difficulty of reaching a compromise is the opposition of the House leadership. The Senate passed the parity measure as an amendment to the fiscal year 2002 Labor-HHS appropriations bill. The House version of the spending bill had "no comparable provision," and a conference committee is meeting to try to reach a compromise. But House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) believes that the Labor-HHS spending bill is "not a proper vehicle for new insurance requirements," according to his spokesperson John Feehery. Meanwhile, the chairs of the House Ways and Means Committee, the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the House Committee on Education and the Workforce -- Bill Thomas (R-Ca.), Billy Tauzin (R-La.) and John Boehner (R-Ohio), respectively -- have all stated their opposition to the Senate measure. "At a time when hundreds of thousands of Americans are losing their jobs, we should not be placing additional strains on the employer-based health care system," Tauzin said. An aide to Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), who is chairing the conference committee, said the lawmaker was "somewhat sympathetic" to the parity measure but was not "pushing" it because of the opposition of a "formidable lineup" of senior House Republicans. But Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who are the leading Senate negotiators on the committee, continue to advocate the measure. "It's a real battle," Specter said (Pear, New York Times, 12/5).
A Los Angeles Times editorial today voices support for the Senate-passed measure and urges House Republicans to accept a cost exemption of 2.5% (Los Angeles Times, 12/5).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.