Blumenthal pressures federal agencies on mental health parity rule

Washington –- Cathy Morelli, a mother from Southington, told a panel of senators Thursday about the nightmares her family lived through when their insurance company repeatedly denied coverage for the treatment of her 13-year-old daughter’s mental illness.

She spoke of her daughter’s repeated slashing of her arms and legs and of attempts at suicide.

“My other daughters did not want to sleep in their beds because they were afraid their sister would hurt them,” Morelli said.

Eventually the troubled girl turned her anger on others and spent 14 days in the emergency psychiatric ward of a hospital, in restraints and under heavy sedation.

But her insurer, Anthem BlueCross BlueShield, repeatedly refused to cover the type of treatment — chiefly long-term hospitalization — that doctors and therapists said she needed, Morelli testified.

She became an advocate for the mentally ill and a star witness at a Judiciary subcommittee hearing chaired Thursday by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.

Blumenthal and advocates for those with mentally illnesses sought to prod federal agencies to issue a final rule on a law approved by Congress in 2008 requiring insurance companies to provide the same coverage for mental illnesses as they do for other illnesses.

Their efforts seemed to pay off immediately. On Thursday, a number of federal agencies responsible for the law’s regulation, including the IRS, Department of Labor and Department of Health and Human Services, said they will publish a final rule on the mental health parity law in Friday’s Federal Register.

That, said former Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., will help insurers understand what the law requires.

“The insurance industry has struggled to understand its obligations, and its response has been patchy,” said Kennedy, who was also a witness at the hearing.

Blumenthal said “the prospect of the hearing certainly created a strong incentive” for the administration to finally act.

“My main regret is that the regulation was not issued four years ago,” he said.

Blumenthal also said he and other mental health advocates will “closely scrutinize” the long-sought regulation.

“They are final regulations, but they may not be the final word,” he said.

The Affordable Care Act requires that all insurers offer mental health benefits in their policies.

But the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act requires that insurers offer the same level of coverage for mental illnesses and physical illnesses. It was sponsored by Kennedy and his father, the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass, who marshaled the bill through the House and Senate.

“We thought its signing by President Bush was the end of a process,” Patrick Kennedy said. “In fact, it was barely the beginning.”

Connecticut is among many states that have approved mental parity laws. But, Kennedy said, “not only are these laws highly variable in the provisions they include, but regulatory and enforcement efforts in those states have been largely governed by a wait-and-see attitude.”

Morelli finally received help for her daughter from Connecticut’s Department of Children and Families and the HUSKY program —  a government-funded insurance plan — that allowed her daughter to receive the long-term treatment she needed.

But after 13 denials from her insurance company, Morelli said that without tough regulations, “these health insurers will not stop their discriminatory practices toward mental illnesses.”

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