U.S. House Moves on Mental Health Parity, Aims to Strengthen Senate's Bill
> 3/20/2007 8:57:05 AM

It was only a month ago that the Senate made a strong step toward voting on The Mental Health Parity Act of 2007 when the bill sailed through the committee stage on an 18 to 3 vote. That bill, S. 558, would be a positive step forward with regard to mental health parity, but as the New York Times reported yesterday, the House of Representatives has moved forward on its own bill, H.R.1367 also know as The Wellstone Act, that contains stronger language with regards to what would need to be covered by insurers. The Senate bill was written with input from employers and insurers with the hope that this would increase support and, in turn, the likelihood of the bill's passage. The House bill has not been as warmly received by the business sector, but still enjoys strong support among members of the House.

At the center of this potential political showdown is an unlikely pair: Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI), who are father and son. At the most basic level, the bills both strive to achieve the same thing: better coverage for mental health treatment. Rep. Kennedy, who has been very public with his own struggles with addiction, has also not been quiet about the differences between the House's bill and the one sponsored by his father:

“Congress is covered, under the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, for the treatment of mental illnesses as defined by the medical community,” Representative Kennedy said in an interview. “If it’s good enough for members of Congress, it should be good enough for the American public. The Senate bill leaves the definition up to whatever is negotiated between the insurer and the employer.”

Representative Kennedy said he feared that some insurers would refuse to cover drug and alcohol abuse, eating disorders, or post-traumatic stress disorder.

We expressed our support for the Senate's bill, and stand by that support, but the younger Kennedy's criticisms are valid. S.558 does not lay out what needs to be covered, only that any insurer who covers mental health do so on par with their physical health coverage. The House bill demands that any insurer that covers mental health cover it with same broad scope as the program that provides coverage to federal employees. As one would expect, the House bill has not been received as warmly as the bill crafted by the older Kennedy and Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM).

When it comes down to it, the House bill is superior to the Senate's from the perspective of the American worker. It will provide better guaranteed coverage where mental health coverage is available. The only worry would be that in the short term far fewer plans will offer mental health coverage as they wait to see what the fallout from this action will look like. Under the Senate's bill, that almost certainly won't happen. In the long run, say a decade or two from now, there is little doubt in our minds that mental health parity will be the norm, and will exist in a more inclusive form. Preventative care is the wave of the future and whether or not Congress wants to bend to businesses fears of rising costs is merely political semantics. It will only be by providing forward thinking care that we will be able to face the rising costs of the future of health care. Mental health parity will be a part of that future.

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