Feds finally move on mental health parity

Washington — Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said Friday that the Obama administration has finalized regulations that would bar insurers from treating mental illnesses differently from other ailments.

Parity has been a longtime issue for mental health advocates, especially since Congress approved a law in 2008 that barred insurance companies from discriminating when it came to the treatment of mental illnesses.

But it was up to federal agencies to establish a rule for that law — and that has taken five years. .

If a doctor says the proper treatment for cancer or a heart attack is hospitalization, few insurers deny coverage. But it’s not been the same for people who require hospitalization from mental illnesses.

At a mental health conference at the Carter Center in Atlanta, where former first lady Rosalynn Carter has long been a proponent of mental health parity, Sebelius said insurers will no longer be able to make a distinction.

“This final rule breaks down barriers that stand in the way of treatment and recovery services for millions of Americans,” she said.

The parity rule, to be published in the Federal Register Friday, requires insurers to charge similar copayments for mental health treatment as they would for physical ailments. It also makes clear that the deductibles have to be the same for all illnesses, and that restrictions on visits to hospitals and doctors would also be the same.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., welcomed the administration’s action.

“The rule is long overdue but still very, very significant,” he said.

But he said he would be “vigilant” to ensure that state insurance departments, which regulate the health insurance industry, keep pressure on insurers to comply with the parity rule.

“State insurance regulators are notorious and lax and laggardly in protecting consumers,” he said.

Blumenthal also called the new parity rule “the single most important step to stem and stop gun violence since the Newtown tragedy.”

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, agreed, saying in a statement, “For too long, mental health issues have been unfairly stigmatized in our society to the point that has resulted in many Americans not having access to the critical treatment that could change their lives. We have seen too many examples of unfortunate events that could have been prevented if only this sort of medical treatment was accessible and utilized.”

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