The U.S. House of Representatives advanced the debate over mental health parity in March by passing the Paul Wellstone Mental Health and Addiction Equity Act of 2007(H.R. 1424). Mental health parity helps individuals with mental illnesses receive insurance benefits similar to those that they receive for physical illnesses.

Many disorders, including substance abuse and addiction, are classified as mental illness. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about one in four adults suffers from a diagnosable mental illness, while about one in 17 adults suffers from a serious mental disorder. Such illnesses are the leading cause of disability in the U.S. and Canada for people between 15 and 44 years old.

If H.R. 1424 becomes law, it would require health insurance providers with more than 50 workers to cover mental and physical illnesses equally. Last year, the Senate passed the Mental Health Parity Act of 2007, a bill similar to that of the House. Both received strong bipartisan support, and Congress is preparing to present a bill to the President this spring.

Under the current law, health insurance providers use their own discretion in covering mental health illnesses. Co-payments for mental health treatment are typically higher than for medical treatment, and certain illnesses may not be covered. Supporters of the new bill note that this type of discrimination leads to inadequate treatment – or, in some cases, a complete lack of treatment – for serious mental illnesses.

Many in the mental health community applauded Congress’ efforts. However, the reform movement is not without critics. While the White House supported the Senate’s bill, it raised concern that the range of illnesses covered in the House version is too broad. It also worried that parity might increase Medicare costs, and other organizations spoke out against a possible general increase in health care costs.

It should be noted that the Congressional Budget Office projected that mental health parity would raise premiums less than one percent. Supporters also were quick to note that mental illness, if left untreated, could result in additional lost productivity in the long run. They also suggested that the absence of mental health coverage drives patients to seek help under medical care benefits, or to go without treatment altogether, thus distorting the real costs in each category.

The House and the Senate will meet to resolve the differences between the bills before presenting the legislation for the President’s signature. If legislation is enacted, LIUNA health and welfare fund trustees will need to re-evaluate their benefit plans accordingly. The LHSFNA will monitor developments and provide guidance on choices and implications.

For more immediate updates on this legislation, visit the Library of Congress online.

[Jennifer E. Jones]