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Lawmakers urge mental health parity protection as insurers merge

Lawmakers urge mental health parity protection as insurers merge

Several U.S. House Democrats have asked federal antitrust regulators currently evaluating proposed mergers among the nation's largest health insurers to protect against potential reductions in patient access to mental health and substance abuse benefits, should the deals go through.

Rep. Joseph Kennedy III, D-Mass., said in a letter to the U.S. Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission that the mergers — including Anthem Inc.'s proposed acquisition of Cigna Corp. and Aetna Inc.'s proposed purchase of Humana Inc. — would likely erode the availability of mental health care and substance abuse treatment services, which he noted are already difficult for many Americans to access.

The letter was co-signed by Reps. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., and Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill.

“At a time when our country is already struggling to enforce mental health parity, decreased competition amongst major insurers threatens to weaken access to treatment even further,” Rep. Kennedy said in a statement released Friday.

Citing statistics published by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the National Institute of Mental Health, Rep. Kennedy said in the letter that 55% of U.S. counties have no practicing psychiatrists, psychologists or social workers, despite one in five American adults having been diagnosed with a mental disorder within the past year.

To address the shortfall, Rep. Kennedy said in his statement that “federal policy must increase resources throughout our mental health system and hold insurance providers strictly accountable to parity obligations under law.”

“Until or unless it is clearly shown that these mergers can help achieve those goals, federal regulators have a responsibility to put consumers and patients first,” he said.

The proposed mergers could be particularly harmful to Medicaid beneficiaries with mental health and substance abuse treatment needs, Rep. Kennedy said in his letter.

“Medicaid is the largest payer of mental health services in the United States, and over 74% of Medicaid beneficiaries are in managed care plans, comprising a large source of revenue for commercial insurance companies,” Rep. Kennedy wrote in the letter. “Therefore, commercial insurance companies play an important role in the ability of individuals with mental illness and substance abuse disorders to get the care they need.”

Rep. Kennedy asked regulators to push insurers seeking approval of their proposed mergers for assurances that the deals won't result in higher costs or reduced access to mental health services.

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