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House panel OKs mental health parity bill


WASHINGTON--A House panel Wednesday approved comprehensive mental health care benefits parity legislation, setting the stage for a future showdown with the Senate.

The measure, approved on a 33-9 vote by the Education and Labor Committee, mirrors in certain ways a measure approved in February by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

The House bill introduced by Reps. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., and Jim Ramstad, R-Minn., like the Senate measure, 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.

The two bills also would exempt small employers from the parity requirements, as well as employers whose mental health care costs increased by more than 1% as a result of upgrading their plans to meet the requirements laid down by the legislation.

However, the House bill differs from the Senate bill in at least two significant ways. While the Senate bill 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 any mental health disorder and illness listed in the psychiatric community's compendium of mental health disorders on the same basis as any other medical illness.

The Education and Labor Committee approval of the measure came after it rejected, on a 27-16 vote, a substitute bill--advanced by the panel's Republican members--whose provisions mirrored the HELP committee bill.

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, for example, impose higher copayments and coinsurance requirements for mental disorders than they do for other medical conditions.

It isn't known yet when the full Senate and House will take up the parity legislation.