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Insurers, Employers Lose Mental Parity Battle

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Members of the House Education and Labor Committee voted 33-9 Wednesday to go with the House version of a mental health benefits standards bill.

The bill, H.R. 1424, would implement the Paul Wellstone Mental Health and Addiction Equity Act, which would set federal standards for employer-sponsored mental health benefits and permit states to set their own, tougher standards.

Many insurance groups, employer groups, provider groups and patient advocacy groups have been backing S. 558, the Mental Health Parity Act of 2007, a bill that would permit states to enforce existing mental benefits standards, but prohibit states from adding new standards that were stricter than the federal standards.

One of the lead sponsors of H.R. 1424 is Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., and one of the lead sponsors of S. 558 is Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., Patrick Kennedy’s father.

Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., proposed that the Education and Labor Committee replace language in H.R. 1424 with language from S. 558.

The House panel decided to keep the House language.

“I am grateful my colleagues understand the critical nature of this legislation and after careful review have voted to continue the momentum towards passage,” Patrick Kennedy says in a statement about the committee vote.

H.R. 1424 “is about treating people equally,” Kennedy says. “If you can get care for heart disease or cancer or diabetes out of network, but you can’t get care for alcoholism or depression or PTSD out of network, that’s not equal.”

Kline says in a statement of his own that the Senate bill is the product of two years of bipartisan negotiations involving a broad group of senators, mental health advocates, providers and business groups.

“It is my understanding that these groups have negotiated in good faith on many difficult issues, and that their work has resulted in a compromise acceptable to everyone,” Kline says.

Both H.R. 1424 and S. 558 would require that insurers apply the same deductibles, hospital stay limits and other contract terms to mental diseases that they apply to physical ailments.

House Republicans on the Education and Labor Committee say the current version of H.R. 1424 could increase employers’ benefits costs, by permitting states to violate the spirit of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act and impose benefits mandates that go beyond the mandates imposed by the federal government.

Republicans also are criticizing the exclusion from H.R. 1424 of provisions explicitly permitting insurers to manage use of mental health services.

“The fatal flaws contained in the House Democrat bill would thrust upon employers more mandates, more costs and more reason to restrict worker coverage or flee the voluntary benefits system altogether,” says Rep. Howard McKeon, R-Calif., the most senior Republican on the Education and Labor Committee.