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House panel to vote on mental health parity bill


WASHINGTON--Breaking a long congressional lull on the issue, the House Education and Labor Committee is scheduled to vote Wednesday on mental health care benefits parity legislation.

Similar to a bill cleared by a Senate panel in February, the House measure, introduced in March by Reps. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., and Jim Ramstad, R-Minn., would require group health care plans to provide the same cost-sharing requirements for mental health care services as they do for other medical conditions.

However, the House bill differs from the one approved by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in at least two significant ways. While the Senate bill--introduced by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass, who is Rep. Kennedy's father--would pre-empt state laws mandating cost-sharing for mental health care services, the House bill would allow states to set stronger standards.

Additionally, while the Senate bill would leave it to employers to decide on which mental health care services they will cover, the House bill mandates that employer plans would have to provide coverage for the same range of mental disorders and illnesses that are covered by federal health care plans available to members of Congress.

Several employer groups, including the American Benefits Council and the National Retail Federation, support the Senate bill but are staunchly opposed to the House bill.

Under a 1996 law, which legislators have renewed several times, group health care plans cannot impose discriminatory annual or lifetime dollar limits on coverage for mental disorders. Plans, though, can impose higher copayments and coinsurance requirements for mental disorders than they do for other medical conditions.