Lawmakers Seek Compromise on Mental Health Parity Bill
Amid opposition from House Republicans, several lawmakers hoping to expand the 1996 mental health parity law have moved to "strike a deal" on a Senate-passed measure (S 543) attached to the FY 2002 Labor-HHS appropriations bill, CongressDaily reports (Fulton, CongressDaily, 11/3). The legislation, sponsored by Sens. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) and Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), would require insurers that provide mental health coverage to offer benefits at the same level as the benefits provided for physical health coverage. The legislation would ban limits on hospital stays and physician visits for mental health treatment that exceed those imposed for physical health visits and would require insurers to charge the same copayments and deductibles for mental and physical health services. The bill would affect group health plans sponsored by employers with more than 50 employees (California Healthline, 11/6). Some House GOP lawmakers have "complained" that the legislation "goes well beyond the more limited" 1996 law, which expired in September (California Healthline, 11/30). To address the issue, Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.) offered a proposal last Friday that would "narrow the definition" of mental heath coverage in the legislation and add a provision to allow employers to "opt out" in cases where the bill increased their health insurance premiums by 1%. However, a Wellstone spokesperson said that "1% won't work," and House GOP aides "did not express optimism" that they would accept a larger percentage. Meanwhile, Wellstone, Domenici, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Labor-HHS subcommittee, and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chair of the subcommittee, plan to meet today to discuss the issue (CongressDaily, 12/3).
According to a Washington Post editorial, the Senate-passed mental health parity legislation "is unassailable. The problem is Congress's failure to face in a serious way the question of cost." The editorial points out that many areas of health care, such as long term care and prescription drug coverage, do not "enjoy" parity. In addition, although the "need is great" for mental health coverage, the editorial warns that the bill may have a "significant" cost and force employers to drop or "charge employees more" for health coverage. The editorial concludes, "If Congress gets into the giddy business of conferring additional benefits without having to pay, or pay much attention to, the cumulative cost, the danger is that even more people will end up with no insurance at all" (Washington Post, 12/4).