Parity Act Requires Equal Mental Health Coverage
> 2/6/2010 4:10:24 PM

Three government departments recently worked together to devise a new system of mental and behavioral health insurance regulations that have garnered the support of the country's largest associated advocacy groups. The changes—which fall under the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act and may apply to more than 140 million Americans—officially took effect on Jan 1st 2010, but the Obama administration issued its first set of applicable rules this week.

As per the orders of the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services and the Treasury, insurance providers must now offer equal coverage for medical services related to mental and behavioral health as well as substance abuse and addiction disorders, applying the same policies to these sorts of cases that they currently use to regulate other forms of coverage.

The most important systemic change in the Act concerns deductibles. Under the new regulations, health plans designed for companies with 50 or more employees may not apply separate fees to mental and physical health services. The common practice of creating larger deductibles for mental health services has almost always led to higher out-of-pocket co-payments for visits to psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers, but insurance plans affected by the new rules can no longer implement such policies. 

Another major regulation forbids insurers from using different standards for mental health-related visits to the doctor's office or the hospital. In the past, insurers allowed for more visits concerning physical disorders. They will now be required to cover visits to mental health practitioners in the same way that they cover the treatment of common diseases like cancer, diabetes and high blood pressure.

The announcement is very good news for Americans who have employer-sponsored insurance plans but often avoid seeking mental health treatment due to the unaffordable out-of-pocket costs associated with treating chronic behavioral conditions. Major advocacy groups like Mental Health America and the American Psychiatric Association quickly released official responses praising the move. The Parity Act first passed through Congress under the George W. Bush administration in October 2008, making it one of the very, very few recent pieces of legislation with truly "bipartisan" support.

The Congressional Budget Office, an independent organization responsible for determining the ultimate cost of new and proposed legislation, stated that the Parity Act will only raise employer health care expenses by approximately 0.5%, an encouragingly small number. We believe these changes to be more than worth any negligible cost increases, and we consider the implementation of this Act to be a victory for mental and behavioral health care advocates across the country. -Patrick Coffee

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