Mental Health Insurance Parity

A Simple Plan Solves a Maze of Problems


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By Ken Steele, Publisher

Nineteen states have enacted mental health parity laws over the past few years. A federal parity law, with gaping holes, was passed in 1996. The 106 Congress is currently considering another one. At press time, New Jersey looked like it may be the 20th state to enact parity if Governor Christine Todd Whitman finally puts an end to the discrimination in health insurance for her constituents with severe mental illnesses. New Jersey's legislature has sent her a powerful message with their votes-parity passage in the New Jersey Senate by a vote of 36 to 1, and in the Assembly, by a vote of 72 to 3. If Governor Whitman signs the legislation it will be the first signed in 1999. Virginia is also close to enacting a parity law.

So where does New York stand on mental health insurance parity? In 1996, the N.Y. State Assembly passed a parity bill. The State Senate did nothing. Last year, the Assembly again passed a parity bill, but the Senate again did not act.

This year, finally a New York State Senate parity bill (S.2089) has been introduced by State Senator Thomas W. Libous (51st Senate District). The Libous bill has its limitations. It would only require parity in managed care health insurance contracts, and it would continue to permit discriminatory co-payments for mental health services. With 13 Republican co-sponsors, the Libous bill is only five co-sponsors short of a majority of the Republican conference. This bill is currently in the Senate Insurance Committee as pressure is building to report it to the floor. This year's Assembly bill (A.6235), sponsored by Assembly member James Brennan (44th Assembly District), is far more comprehensive. It covers both managed care and traditional indemnity contracts and prohibits discriminatory co-payments. This bill is expected to pass the State Assembly easily.

So New York, for once, has "live" parity bills in both the State Senate and State Assembly. This is thanks to the relentless efforts of the MEND (Mental Health Equality Not Discrimination) Coalition, which has coalesced all of New York's major mental health advocacy organizations behind parity. As noted, significant differences exist between the New York State Senate and Assembly bills. The good news is that when a compromise parity bill emerges from the legislature, many believe it is unlikely to face opposition from Governor George Pataki.

Mental Health parity is a simple plan to solve the many complex problems we face today in accessing the latest medications and treatments, adequate outpatient services, follow-up and case management. Other states with parity have already demonstrated how well and cost-efficiently it works.

This year, all of us need to stand up and support parity. Call (212) 989-8460 for information on how you can help parity become New York law.

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