Mental Health Parity Would Still Leave Millions Uninsured

Since Republicans are usually so averse to adding any more government mandates onto the business community, we were surprised to see President George W. Bush come out in favor of mental health benefit parity legislation.

The temptation is to say, “It’s about time.” After all, it just isn’t fair to have health plans treat coverage for treatment of mental illness differently from any other health problem.

However, while it is easy to approve unfunded government mandates–they are politically popular, but require no direct taxpayer funding–it is short-sighted to ignore the economic and social consequences of such actions by Washington.

Employers are already struggling with soaring healthcare costs, particularly for prescription drugs, and forcing health plans to upgrade their mental health coverage will make those expenses that much harder to contain. After all, there is no such thing as a “free” health benefit.

The probability is that more employers will drop coverage altogether, or pass more of the bill along to employees themselves, either through higher premiums, deductibles or co-payments.

Still, we will not argue the merits of this particular initiative, because common sense and common decency dictate that those with mental health problems should not be discriminated against by their health plans.

In addition, the parity bill in Congress backed by President Bush is extremely modest. It would exempt small businesses. It would not require employers to provide health insurance, nor require those who do provide health benefits to cover mental health treatments. It would simply require those who do cover both physical and mental health to treat all claims equally. Any restrictions on coverage would have to apply to all claims.

However, our objection is that we once again find ourselves arguing over a sliver of the health care pie, when tens of millions are still going hungry for benefits. Mental health coverage is important, but so is prescription drug coverage, and so is the fact that so many millions lack any insurance at all.

President Bush has appointed a new commission to identify ways to better coordinate public and private mental health systems. What he needs to do is appoint a commission with a much more ambitious mandate–to figure out how everyone can get affordable coverage for all their physical and mental health needs without forcing employers to dump health benefits altogether or bankrupting the country.


Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, May 20, 2002. Copyright 2002 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.