The Free Press, Mankato, MN

March 8, 2013

Franken still pushing mental health parity

By Mark Fischenich
Free Press Staff Writer

— Remember the late Sen. Paul Wellstone’s passionate advocacy for equal coverage for mental health treatment as exists for medical and surgical care?

Supporters of the idea didn’t forget, and put Wellstone’s name on the legislation requiring mental health parity in all insurance plans that include mental health coverage — a bill that was enacted into law in 2008. But more than four years after the legislation was signed into law by President George W. Bush, and more than a decade after Wellstone’s death in a northern Minnesota plane crash, the law remains only partly implemented and enforced.

Sen. Al Franken, who now fills the seat once held by Wellstone, has been pushing the Obama administration to get the regulations finalized to fully carry out to law’s intent.

“Getting folks with mental illness the care they need is just as critical as getting someone with a broken leg to the emergency room,” Franken said in a statement.

Franken was responding to a Free Press request for a critique of the White House’s progress in implementing the law.

“I’ve been working with the President to implement this law since coming to the Senate,” Franken wrote. “It’s time to get this done so that Minnesotans and people across the country can get the care they need.”

Franken applauded steps taken by the Obama administration in the past two months. In January, administrators of state Medicaid-related programs received instructions on providing equal coverage for mental health and substance abuse care as for other medical services.

In February, federal rules were released regarding mental health parity in the individual and small-group insurance plans that will be offered on the health insurance exchanges under the Affordable Care Act.

Still to come are the detailed final rules defining the full scope of services that insurers must provide. Franken and Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa urged the administration early this year to pick up the pace on the regulation-writing.

“... Millions of Americans with health insurance are entitled to access to a full range of mental health and substance abuse disorder services,” Franken and Harkin wrote, referring to the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Act. “However, while this historic law was passed four years ago, the administration has yet to issue a final rule, potentially leaving many Americans who need and have a right to these services without access to them.”

After receiving the letter, the administration announced that the final rules will be completed by the end of this year.

The recent movement in the federal bureaucracy is a relief to advocacy organizations for people with mental illness and to providers of mental health care, according to a report in American Medical News.

“For far too long we have had a two-tiered insurance system, with those who had brain disorders getting less coverage than those who had heart disease,” said Mark Covall, president and CEO of the National Association of Psychiatric Health Systems.

The delays in implementing the 2008 law were, according to some health care analysts, partly the result of the Obama administration being overwhelmed by the task of writing the rules for the even-more-sweeping Affordable Care Act. But the Department of Health and Human Services also announced recently that the two laws will combine to dramatically increase the number of Americans with mental health coverage that matches their other medical coverage, bringing the total to 62.5 million Americans.

Currently, about 30.4 million have  coverage that provides parity for mental health and substance abuse care, according to the department.