At a recent reception for Paul and Sheila Wellstone, Minnesota Sen. Al Franken said he’s overseeing the implementation of a law named for Wellstone that requires health insurance providers give equal coverage for mental health and substance abuse treatments as they do for physical problems.
This is long overdue.
Four years ago, Congress passed the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Act, requiring insurers to cover mental illness and substance abuse treatment as they do physical ailments. The law, specifically championed by the late Wellstone, sought to end two-tiered systems that severely undercut treatment for those suffering from mental illness.
However, since President George W. Bush signed the law, the Obama administration still has to complete federal rules enabling states to enforce it.
Consequently, according to a report by Stateline and Pew Research, behavioral health advocates argue that treatment has fallen further behind. The U.S. Government Accountability Office reported this year that health insurance plans increased the number of exclusions for mental health since the law was enacted.
James Ramstad, a former Minnesota Republican congressman and advocate for the Wellstone law, said “hundreds of thousands of Americans are being denied their rights under the federal parity law. … It took 12 years to pass that parity act and four years later, we still have no rules and therefore no enforcement,” says Ramstad. “It’s unconscionable.”
Patrick Kennedy, a former Democratic congressman, pointed out there are no regulations telling the insurance companies how to comply. “A law without rules isn’t worth the paper it’s written on, and what that means is that insurance companies can continue to do business as usual.”
Crafting the rules is not that difficult. Advocates point out that broad outlines clearly state that insurance companies cannot impose more restrictive spending limits on mental health or addiction benefits than they impose on medical and surgical benefits. They cannot limit the frequency or duration of treatment any worse than what is provided for other treatments nor can they have discriminatory deductibles or exclusions.