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Final Push For Mental-Health Bill

posted 02:21 PM EST, Mon October 06, 2008
Final Push For Mental-Health Bill © Photo by Kimberly Faye

In a historic move, the US Congress passed a legislation, last week, that would require health insurers and businesses with over 50 employees to provide mental-health coverage on par with physical illnesses.

Mental-health-related reimbursement rates for doctor visits or hospital stays would equal the percentage paid for physical illnesses. This will end such common restrictions as 30-day hospital stays or 30 visits to a mental health professional if plans don't similarly curb treatment for physical problems.

The new legislation does not require mental health coverage for plans sold to individuals, employers with fewer than 50 workers, or employers that don't provide any health coverage (making it palatable to small-business advocates).

Supporters of the bill estimate that it will benefit 113 million Americans with basic health insurance coverage, as well as 87 million self-insured Americans, where existing state parity laws don’t yet cover mental illness.

The vote was a personal victory for Patrick Kennedy and the bill’s coauthor, Rep. Jim Ramstad from Minnesota. For more than a year, the two have campaigned against the longstanding disparity in mental-health insurance coverage, telling their personal stories of addiction and alcoholism.

"My friends, I have a mental illness," Kenned said before congress.

"I’m living proof that recovery works," said Ramstad, who again recounted how he sought treatment for alcoholism more than 25 years ago after "I woke up in a jail cell in Sioux Falls, S.D."

Although the legislation doesn't specify what disorders must be covered, Andrew Sperling, director of federal legislative advocacy for the National Alliance on Mental Illness stated that "this is the biggest step we’ve ever taken in terms of integration of mental illness into the larger health care system."

Over the last 15 years, both the House and Senate had passed different versions of the bill, only to see them founder. This time, the bill has support of business and insurance groups. On Tuesday, the House passed a standalone bill and the Senate attached the same language to a tax measure.

Now, the two chambers must reach an agreement on how to pay the $3.4 billion cost for the new legislation. The legislation would be put into practice nationwide by January 2010, if it becomes law. President Bush has already signaled support.

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