Friday, October 10, 2008

Law Equalizes Coverage For Mental, Physical Care

'Milestone' Measure Could Expand Treatment Services

By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 10, 2008; Page B01

An estimated 113 million Americans, including hundreds of thousands in the Washington region, will receive better insurance coverage for their mental health and substance abuse problems because of landmark legislation that for the first time requires mental and physical illnesses to be treated equally.

The law is a culmination of a decade of lobbying and negotiating among advocates for the mentally ill, the insurance industry, the business community -- including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- and doctors' groups. The change, which was included in the economic rescue package signed by President Bush last week, will take effect Jan. 1, 2010, for most plans. Businesses with 50 or fewer employees would be exempt.

For decades, insurance companies could offer less coverage for the treatment of depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder than of such diseases as cancer and diabetes -- so people with mental illness or substance abuse problems often had to pay for expensive treatment and medication out-of-pocket.

The new law bars companies from setting higher co-pays or deductibles for mental health and substance abuse treatment. Plans also will be prohibited from lowering benefit levels or restricting the number of outpatient therapy sessions or hospital treatment days. And if a health plan allows out-of-network visits for the treatment of physical illnesses, it will also have to offer identical out-of-network coverage for mental health care.

Advocates and experts said the change represents a fundamental shift in how the mentally ill are treated and could bring medical parity to tens of millions of people.

"This is absolutely milestone legislation for those people who have mental health and substance abuse problems," said Doug Walter, counsel for legislative and regulatory affairs at the American Psychological Association. "It ends the discrimination against people who have long needed the help."

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