Friday, October 3, 2008

Congress passes mental health coverage boost

A measure boosting insurance coverage for mental illness and treatment of drug and alcohol addiction secured final U.S. congressional passage on Friday as part of financial industry bailout legislation.

The bailout bill that the House of Representatives passed 263-171 was tacked onto a bipartisan measure requiring health insurers to give the same level of coverage for mental illness and substance abuse treatment as other ailments.

President George W. Bush quickly signed it into law. The Senate had passed it on Wednesday.

The bill will not force health plan providers to give mental health coverage but will make those that offer benefits for mental illness and substance addiction treatment to do so on the same terms as medical and surgical care.

The legislation, known as mental health parity, becomes law after a decade-long quest by advocates for the mentally ill who say insurers often shortchange people with mental conditions ranging from depression to schizophrenia.

The bill bars insurers from charging higher deductibles, co-payments, coinsurance or out-of-pocket expenses, or imposing limits including frequency of treatment, number of visits and days of coverage for mental health and addiction care.

"No longer will we allow mental health to be treated as a stepchild in the health care system. If you have insurance, then your mental health care must be equal to the benefits you get for any other disease," said Sen. Pete Domenici, a New Mexico Republican who helped champion the measure and whose daughter has schizophrenia.

Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy, another driving force behind the bill, said it will make a huge difference for the one in five Americans with mental illness.


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