Mental Health Parity Bills Get Through Congress

September 26, 2008 ( - Both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives have approved mental health coverage parity bills, but lawmakers still have to iron out differences between the two bills.

A Best Wire Services news report said while both measures ban insurers from being more restrictive on workplace mental health coverage than for medical/surgical items, they diverge on how to pay the resulting $3.4-billion price tag.

According to the news report, the House passed an amended version of the Paul Wellstone-Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act on a 367 – 47 vote (See  House OKs Mental Health Parity Measure ). The bill will not require employers and group health plans that offer mental health benefits to extend equitable coverage to all conditions listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Employer and insurer groups had complained the original House bill could impinge on flexibility in benefit plan design and management of mental-health benefits.

“Members of Congress today took an important step by passing bipartisan legislation that will provide greater access to mental and behavioral health care coverage,” America’s Health Insurance Plans President Karen Ignagni said in a statement. “This legislation will give peace of mind to patients and preserve their access to the innovative programs and flexible benefit options that health insurance plans have developed to promote high-quality, evidence-based behavioral health care.”

The news report said, however, the final measure, unlike a version that passed the Senate unanimously a year ago (See  Mental Health Parity Act Gets Senate Approval ), would not include pre-emption of state level benefit mandates. Self-insured plans, which previously had been exempt under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act from state laws, would be made to comply with the act’s requirements.

Both bills require plans that offer mental benefits to ensure that deductibles, co-payments, and covered hospital days and visits for mental-health benefits be equal to those for other physical impairments.