On July 23, a key U.S. House Subcommittee held a hearing on health insurance coverage of mental illness treatment at which members of Congress from across the political spectrum expressed support for a federal standard requiring parity coverage. The hearing - held before the House Energy & Commerce Subcommittee on Health - marks an important step forward in the effort to pass federal parity legislation in 2002.
The hearing was particularly noteworthy in that not a single member of Congress present expressed opposition to a requirement for health plans to cover treatment for mental illness on the same terms and conditions as all other illnesses. In fact members of the Health Subcommittee (both Democrats and Republicans) saved their sharpest questions for representatives of the business community and the insurance industry for allowing health plans to continue offering insufficient and discriminatory coverage for mental illness treatment.
It is clear that the work you are doing - meeting and communicating with your elected Representatives about the importance of parity - is making a real difference!
The hearing was chaired by Representative Mike Bilirakis (R-FL) who offered cautious support for parity but urged that such a requirement be limited to more serious mental illnesses. At the same time, other members of the Subcommittee expressed support for a broader parity requirement. The witnesses at the hearing included representatives from the National Association of Manufacturers, the American Association of Health Plans, Wausau Insurance and the American Psychiatric Association. In addition, the CEO of Ocean Energy of Houston, Texas testified in favor of parity as a measure that would benefit employers in the long run. Ocean Energy has provided parity health insurance benefits for its employees for several years.
The Health Subcommittee's Web site has the full text of all witness testimony.
In the past, the Energy & Commerce Health Subcommittee has been viewed by most observers as hostile to federal parity legislation. The fact that none of the members of the Subcommittee present at the hearing publicly expressed opposition to parity is an important development. In fact, the clear understanding demonstrated at the hearing by members of Congress from across the political spectrum that mental illnesses are real and that treatment is effective was remarkable! Again, this is a testimony to the work you have been doing to inform and educate them.
Further, the traditional arguments regarding cost made by opponents of parity from business and insurance interests appeared to hold little sway with members of the Subcommittee. While it is likely that President Bush's public support for parity is important in placing the parity issue on the Subcommittee's agenda, it is also clear that members of Congress are developing a stronger understanding of mental illness and the struggles that consumers and families go through in trying to access adequate health insurance coverage.
The hearing was also encouraging because of the large number of Health Subcommittee members who attended and actively engaged in the debate. Most attendees expressed support for parity. None expressed opposition. Health Subcommittee members who were present included Representatives Mike Bilirakis (R-FL), Jim Greenwood (R-PA), Charlie Norwood (R-GA), Robert Ehrlich (R-MD), Heather Wilson (R-NM), Greg Ganske (R-IA), John Shadegg (R-AZ), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Henry Waxman (D-CA), Albert Wynn (D-MD), Anna Eshoo (D-CA), Lois Capps (D-CA) and Ted Strickland (D-CA). Representative Marge Roukema (R-NJ), long-time parity supporter and lead sponsor of the House parity bill (HR 4066) was also present for the hearing.
While this hearing marks a critical milestone toward passage of parity, much work still needs to be done to convince House leaders of the need to act on parity this year. NAMI advocates are therefore urged to continue contacting key members of the House leadership to urge them to support parity and ensure House passage in the few remaining months in this year's session. It is especially important that the following members of Congress hear from NAMI members about the importance of passing parity:
In addition, all members of Congress need to be contacted and strongly encouraged to reach out to House leaders to support parity and work with President Bush to ensure that a federal parity bill is enacted before the end of the year.
All members of Congress can be reached by calling the Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121 or online through www.congress.org.