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Mental health benefits still fall short: Study


Ambulatory mental health treatment remains less well-covered than other types of health care despite a 1996 law and numerous state laws that require employers to provide mental health care benefits equal to those for medical care, a federal study shows.

While out-of-pocket expenses for mental health care visits paralleled those of non-mental health visits for the first five visits each year, consumers' cost grew as the number of mental health visits approached and surpassed 20 annually, according to researchers at the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality in Washington.

By contrast, as the number of outpatient visits for non-mental health care increased, out-of-pocket costs generally declined, researchers say.

However, out-of-pocket costs for prescription drugs were not effectively higher for treatment of mental health conditions vs. medical conditions, concludes the study by the arm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

To estimate out-of-pocket costs for mental health and non-mental health treatment, researchers used data from AHRQ's ongoing national Medical Expenditure Panel Survey. The study covers the period from 1996 to 2003, the latest year for which data is available.

Federal mental health parity legislation passed in 1996 bans discriminatory annual and lifetime dollar limits on mental health care benefits. However, it allows employers to require higher copayments and deductibles for mental health care services than for other medical services. The law was set to expire Dec. 31, 2005. But earlier this year President Bush signed a measure extending it until Dec. 31, 2006.

"Coverage for Mental Health Treatment: Do the Gaps Still Persist?" was published in the September issue of the Journal of Mental Health Policy and Economics.