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Senate panel to take up mental health parity bill


WASHINGTON—The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee is expected to vote Wednesday on a newly introduced mental health care benefits parity bill.

The bipartisan bill, introduced Monday by Committee Chairman Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Sens. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., and Pete Domenici, R-N.M., would require health care plans to provide the same level of coverage for mental health care services as they do for other medical and surgical services.

Specifically, the measure, which would apply to both insured and self-funded plans, would mandate coverage equity for deductibles, copayments and coinsurance.

Additionally, discriminatory treatment limitations would be barred. That would mean that limits on the number of visits to mental health therapists and the number of days of hospital coverage could be no more restrictive than limitations applied to substantially all other medical and surgical expenses that a health care plan covers.

Small employers—those with fewer than 50 employees—would be exempt. In addition, an employer plan would be exempt if it could prove that compliance would boost costs by more than 2% during the first year and 1% during succeeding years.

The legislation, certain to pass the committee, would be a big change from current federal law, which bans only discriminatory annual and lifetime dollar limits for mental health care benefits. Since that 1996 law was put into place, many employers amended their plans to strip out those dollar limitations but retained or added discriminatory coverage provisions, such as paying 50% of mental health care bills but 80% for all other medical services.

Many states have passed measures to mandate mental health care benefits parity, but those laws only apply to insured plans.