NU Online News Service, Aug. 6, 12:25 p.m. – The National Association of Health Underwriters, Arlington, Va., says senators still have time to modify the new mental health parity bill, S. 543.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee last week gave unanimous approval to the bill, which would require companies that offer mental health benefits to provide the same level of coverage for mental health as they do for physical health.

The existing mental health parity law, enacted in 1996, requires health plans that provide mental health benefits to provide equal annual and lifetime benefits for mental health benefits and other services. That law is set to expire Sept. 30.

“The new bill would keep health plans from imposing limits on hospital stays and physician visits for mental health treatment that are greater than those imposed for physical health visits, and require them to charge the same co-payments and deductibles for mental health services as they do for other medical services,” NAHU analysts write in their latest Washington update.

The backers of the bill won unanimous support from the committee by expanding an exemption for small businesses to include companies with 50 workers or fewer, up from a previous level of 25, the analysts report.

But the Congressional Budget Office estimates the bill could still raise individuals’ annual health insurance premiums 1%.

NAHU analysts note that some Labor Committee members plan to bring up concerns about the bill when it reaches the floor. Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., expressed concerns that the increased costs might lead employers to drop mental health coverage entirely.

Gregg told NAHU he might still offer an amendment when the bill comes to the floor that would cancel the law if premiums increased more than 1%.