Thursday, April 24, 2008

Congressional Negotiations Close on Mental Health Parity

U.S. Senate negotiators are in the midst of reviewing the latest House proposal to require parity between mental health coverage and traditional medical coverage, and could move toward a response "in the next few days," according to a senior legislative aide to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.

According to Connie Garner, Kennedy's policy director for disability and special populations, legislative counsel for the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee chairman are completing their assessment of the latest tweaks to the Mental Health Parity Act. The act would prevent plans that offer any mental health benefits from placing more restrictive conditions on mental-health coverage than those for medical and surgical coverage.

"At that point, we'll bring our coalition back together, and we'll look at what they have to offer and hopefully, the dissonance between those bills will begin to get a little bit smaller," Garner said.

Separate versions of the legislation have cleared each chamber in the past year, including the House's 268-148 vote early last month to approve the Paul Wellstone Mental Health and Addiction Equity Act (BestWire, March 6, 2008). That bill, H.R. 1424, would require employers and group health plans that offer mental health benefits would need to extend equitable coverage to all conditions listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Unlike a related Senate bill -- S. 558, which cleared that chamber unanimously in late September -- the House measure does not enjoy broad support from the employer and insurer community, which have complained the House bill includes provisions that could impinge on flexibility in benefit plan design and management of mental-health benefits. The Senate bill, by contrast, has been endorsed by America's Health Insurance Plans, the National Association of Health Underwriters, the American Benefits Council and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., the bill's primary Senate sponsor, expressed gratitude to Kennedy for leading the charge for updated parity legislation. Kennedy's son, Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., is co-sponsor of H.R. 1424.

"We have worked together for a number of years on mental health issues and we now have an opportunity to get mental health parity for the mentally ill in the United States. We're just within earshot of getting that done, and I look forward to that being done before I leave the Senate," Domenici said during a Capitol Hill briefing hosted by AHIP, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and the Association for Behavioral Health and Wellness.

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