The federal government has issued final regulations that require health insurance companies to treat mental health disorders and addiction the same as physical illnesses.
The joint announcement by the departments of Health and Human Services and the Treasury brings to fruition the groundbreaking Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act signed by President George W. Bush in 2008.
No differences for mental health
Under the new regulations, insurers must charge similar copayments to treat mental health disorders as for physical ailments. Policy deductibles and limits on the number of visits also may not be more restrictive for those seeking mental health and substance abuse care. Insurers are now directed to treat all mental health services with parity, regardless of geographic location or whether they are administered in a residential treatment facility or on an outpatient basis.
Roughly 26 percent of Americans 18 and older are diagnosed with a mental health disorder annually, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
"This final rule breaks down barriers that stand in the way of treatment and recovery services for millions of Americans," says HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
The move recognizes concerns on Capitol Hill over the "invisible wounds" of post-traumatic stress disorder among a decade of servicemen and women returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the recent wave of mass murders following the Newtown, Conn., school massacre and the Boston Marathon bombings.
By issuing the mental health regulations, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have acted on all 23 executive actions promised earlier this year to stem the growth of gun violence.
Health insurers had resisted
Why the five-year delay for the mental health law? Health insurers, including the trade group America's Health Insurance Plans, lobbied against equal rights for mental health, claiming it was impossible to provide hard scientific data to treat physical and mental illnesses with parity. A phalanx of mental health professionals disagreed, however.
Patrick Kennedy, a former congressman from Rhode Island who co-sponsored the 2008 law and has battled depression and substance abuse, says the rules will not only result in far more humane treatment for millions of sufferers, but also could result in significant economic savings in the long run.
"Doctors check cholesterol and blood pressure, but the notion that, in this day and age, they ignore a check-up from the neck up that could make all the difference in all the rest of our health is hard to believe," Kennedy told USA TODAY. "I don't think my liberal mind and bleeding heart will be the reason that this gets implemented. I believe it will be economics."
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