House OKs bill boosting mental health coverage

WASHINGTON Wed Sep 24, 2008 9:03am EDT

The waiting room at a mental health center is seen in a file photo. REUTERS/Lee Celano

The waiting room at a mental health center is seen in a file photo.

Credit: Reuters/Lee Celano

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Members of the U.S. Congress on Tuesday passed legislation to require health insurers to give the same level of coverage for mental illness and drug and alcohol abuse treatment as for other ailments.

Known as mental health parity, the legislation moved toward becoming law after a decade-long crusade by advocates for the mentally ill who say insurers often shortchange people with mental conditions ranging from depression to schizophrenia.

The House of Representatives passed a bill for mental health parity, 376-47, and sent it for concurrence to the Senate. Just hours earlier, the Senate approved such legislation as part of a tax bill, 93-2.

The White House supports mental health parity but Congress must send President George W. Bush a final bill approved by both chambers before he can sign such legislation into law.

"We are almost at the finish line but not quite yet," a Democratic aide said.

The bill would not force health plans to give mental health coverage but would compel those that offer benefits for mental illness and substance addiction treatment to do so on the same terms as medical and surgical care for other conditions.

The bill would prohibit insurers from charging higher co-payments and deductibles or impose other different standards on mental health and addiction care.

"Enacting mental health parity will affect nearly every individual in this country who has watched a friend or family member struggle with mental illness or addiction, or who has battled the disease themselves," said Rhode Island Democratic Rep. Patrick Kennedy, one of the chief House sponsors.

In 2006 Kennedy underwent treatment for addiction to prescription drugs. His father, Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy, is a lead sponsor of the Senate measure.

Minnesota Republican Rep. Jim Ramstad, another lead House sponsor said, "I'm alive and sober today only because of the access I had to treatment following my last alcoholic blackout on July 31, 1981, when I woke up in a jail cell in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. I'm living proof that treatment works and recovery is possible.

"It's time to end the discrimination against people who need treatment for mental illness and addiction. It's time to prohibit health insurers from placing discriminatory barriers to treatment," Ramstad added.

Commenting after the Senate vote, Sen. Kennedy described mental health care coverage as a civil rights issue.

"With passage of this bill, fundamental justice arrives for millions of our fellow Americans who deal with mental illness," Kennedy said. "Today, the United States Senate says to them loud and clear, you will no longer have to suffer in the shadows."

The bipartisan measure was forged in earlier negotiations between House and Senate lawmakers. It does not contain language that was present in a version passed by the House by a vote of 268-148 in March that would have required insurers to pay for treatment for an expansive list of mental disorders.

It would apply to group health plans covering more than 50 people.

(Reporting by Thomas Ferraro; Editing by Bill Trott)

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