The House-Senate conference committee approved the outlines of a spending bill that includes a landmark provision requiring insurance plans providing mental health benefits to set the same level of yearly and lifetime coverage for these benefits as for other medical services. The bill is poised to become law in the next two weeks. (We went to press the week of September 23.) The continuous and ardent advocacy of NAMI members made this historic achievement possible.
"This has been a very long and difficult effort, but I'm pleased that we have finally succeeded," Senator Domenici (R-NM) said today. "I am proud of the fact that my mental health parity amendment was accepted. This represents a first step by the Congress to bring the nation to terms with caring for the millions of Americans who suffer from these diseases of the brain." Continued Domenici, "With this we begin remedying one of the most glaring and discriminatory discrepancies prevalent in America today."
Co-sponsor of the bill, Senator Paul Wellstone (D-MN) said "This is a huge victory. It is a crucial and affordable step toward ending the stigma and the most egregious form of discrimination against Americans suffering from mental illness. Millions of American families will benefit from this very significant move toward parity treatment for people with mental illnesses."
The bill, which is scheduled for approval by the House and Senate in the next few days (the last week in September) and then to be sent to the president, would outlaw discriminatory annual and lifetime limits on mental illness treatment in insurance plans offering mental health coverage. It extends to employers with more than 50 employees. Implementation is set for January 1998. The Federal Employees Health Benefit Plan is also covered under the bill. The provision "sunsets" in five years.
The need for the amendment originated in the grassroots, and the people's voice--NAMI's voice--fueled the provision's momentum. On September 5, the Senate voted overwhelmingly 82 to 15 for the Domenici-Wellstone amendment. President Clinton expressed strong support for the amendment to House Speaker Newt Gingrich in a letter delivered the morning of September 11th. President Clinton wrote: "People with mental illness have faced discrimination in health insurance coverage for too long....It is time that we take steps to end this inequity." The House voted that same day 392 to 17 to instruct VA/HUD appropriations conferees to include the Domenici-Wellstone amendment as part of the proposed bill. On September 19th, the conferees did just that, voting to include this parity amendment.
There can be no doubt that strong grassroots advocacy, week after week, registered with federal lawmakers. You, the members of NAMI, performed heroically and deserve immense gratitude and congratulations. But our fight has just begun. "This legislation is vital to stopping rampant discrimination against people with severe mental illness," said Laurie Flynn, executive director of NAMI. "This decision by the conferees is just the beginning of ending insurance discrimination. Congress has sent a strong message to employers and insurance companies that the days of second-class treatment of people with brain disorders are numbered." Annie Saylor, the President of NAMI, echoes this remark: "An important first step has been achieved toward ending discrimination against people with brain disorders called mental illnesses. We must not give up until ALL such discrimination has ended."