Victory for Mental Health Parity

Advocates for mental health parity celebrated a victory in October with the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equality Act signed into law. The language of the act was attached to the highly publicized Wall Street rescue, tax and disaster relief bill (H.R. 1424).

The action will mandate that private insurers provide mental health and addiction services parity for about 113 million Americans who work for employers with 50 employees or more, said James Finley, senior government relations associate at NASW.

The new law will begin to help the millions of people who suffer from mental illness and substance abuse. It is estimated that about 44 million Americans suffer from mental illness, but only one-third receive treatment. A key component of the problem has been that private health insurers generally provide less coverage for mental illnesses and substance abuse than for other medical conditions, Finley said.

A 2002 Kaiser Family Foundation study found that, while 98 percent of workers with employer-sponsored health insurance had coverage for mental health care, 74 percent of those workers were subject to annual outpatient visit limits and 64 percent were subject to annual inpatient daily limits.

"NASW greatly appreciates social workers' continued commitment to supporting passage of this landmark legislation," said NASW Executive Director Elizabeth J. Clark. "NASW members and thousands of other mental health advocates have battled for years to enact federal mental health parity legislation for private insurance coverage." NASW is a also a member of the Mental Health Liaison Group which sent a letter to Congress urging support of the act.

Mental health advocates said the parity law does not mandate group health plans to provide any mental health coverage. However, if a plan does offer mental health coverage, it requires:

  • equity in financial requirements, such as deductibles, co-payments, coinsurance and out-of-pocket expenses;
  • equity in treatment limits, such as caps on the frequency or number of visits, limits on days of coverage or other similar limits on the scope and duration of treatment;
  • equality in out-of-network coverage

U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) sponsored the mental health parity act in 2008. He told the Associated Press that for too long, health insurance companies have used the stigma of mental illness and substance abuse as an excuse to deny coverage for those biological disorders. "This legislation is one more step in the long civil rights struggle to ensure that all Americans have the opportunity to reach their potential," he said.