Lawmakers tout mental health coverage bill

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U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island joined local Reps. Tim Murphy and Jason Altmire in Pittsburgh yesterday to support legislation aimed at giving more Americans the same access to insurance coverage for mental health needs as they have for physical health problems.

Advocates contend that among other benefits, offering equal access for mental health coverage -- a concept known as parity -- will reduce absenteeism in the workplace and improve productivity.

Mr. Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, Mr. Altmire, D-McCandless, and Mr. Kennedy heard testimony from local and national mental health experts at a congressional field hearing at the municipal building in Green Tree. Most expressed strong support for improving coverage for mental illness and addictions.

Dr. Terry Cline, administrator of the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, noted that 39 million Americans 18 to 54 have at least one mental health or substance abuse problem annually, and nearly three out of four are working. He said the Bush administration is reviewing parity legislation pending in Congress.

Mr. Kennedy said yesterday's hearing and others held around the nation were intended to boost support for a House bill that aims to increase access to treatment for mental illness and addictions. He noted that another bill that in some ways would provide less complete coverage is moving through the Senate.

Though Mr. Kennedy said the House bill, which has more than 250 sponsors, is likely to be passed in that chamber, he and others predicted that it would be difficult to win support for its provisions in negotiations with the Senate.

Mr. Murphy said he hoped those concerns would be eased by providing more information about the savings that can result from providing mental health treatment. He noted that a RAND Corp. study found that untreated depression alone costs employers billions of dollars a year.

The House bill calls for coverage of a broad range of conditions based on the coverage provided by the federal employee health plan now used by members of Congress.

In the past, some business groups have opposed providing that level of coverage, said Ralph Ibson, vice president for government affairs for Mental Health America, an advocacy group. Some have been reluctant, for example, to cover eating disorders or autism, he said.

Compared with the House bill, the Senate bill would allow employers and health insurers more authority to determine the mental health conditions to be covered, he said.

Dr. David Shern, Mental Health America's president, predicted that Congress would approve a parity bill this session.

While the group would prefer that a broad array of mental health conditions be covered, Mr. Ibson applauded the efforts of both chambers to craft parity legislation, noting that similar bills have stalled in recent years.

While a federal mental health parity law was approved in 1996, disparities nevertheless exist compared to coverage for physical illnesses -- for example, in co-pays and deductibles, he said.

Neither the House nor the Senate version would require employers to provide mental health coverage, Mr. Ibson noted. But if they do, they would have to provide the coverage under terms similar to those used for physical illnesses. Employers with fewer than 50 workers would be exempt.

Mr. Kennedy noted that the House bill would not supersede state laws that establish stronger requirements.

In her testimony, Patricia Valentine, deputy director of Allegheny County's Office of Behavioral Health, asked lawmakers to ensure that any parity legislation would not supplant Pennsylvania's drug and alcohol insurance law, known as Act 106.

While the House version would not affect the state law, which requires most group health insurance plans to include coverage for addiction treatment, it could be weakened under the Senate version, she said.


Joe Fahy can be reached at jfahy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1722.


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