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Senate panel passes mental health parity bill


WASHINGTON—A Senate committee Wednesday overwhelmingly approved legislation mandating parity for mental health benefits in group health care plans.

The legislation, which cleared the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on an 18-3 vote, would require plans to provide the same cost-sharing requirements for mental health expenses as they impose for other medical expenses. For example, if a group health care plan requires enrollees to pay 80% of medically related expenses, it would have to do the same for mental health care expenses.

Additionally, the measure would ban discriminatory limits on visits to mental health therapists and inpatient stays for treatment of mental disorders. A health care plan could not, for example, limit the number of annual outpatient visits to mental health therapists if there is no comparable limit for treatment of other medical problems.

The measure also would ban separate deductibles for mental health care expenses. If a health care plan had, for example, a $400 deductible for medical expenses, mental health expenses would have to be included in the overall deductible.

Committee Chairman Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., a sponsor of the legislation, described it as "a matter of enormous importance" to millions of U.S. residents.

Unlike earlier parity bills, the latest bill enjoys broad bipartisan support in the Senate and is not opposed by major business and benefits groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Benefits Council.

Indeed, business groups have been deeply involved as the legislation was being put together and won several key concessions, including one that would pre-empt state laws that mandate cost-sharing.

The bill would apply to employers with 51 or more employees. It would exempt companies if they could prove that compliance would increase health care costs by more than 2% during the first year that parity goes into effect or more than 1% in subsequent years.

It isn't known yet when the full Senate will take up the bill. A companion bill has not been introduced yet in the House.