NAMI Urges Support for Paul Wellstone Mental Health Parity Act

Federal Legislation Is A Vital Step In Ending Insurance Discrimination

Statement By Jim McNulty, President National Alliance For The Mentally Ill (NAMI)

Feb 27 2003

The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) fully supports the Paul Wellstone Mental Health Equitable Treatment Act of 2003. We are grateful for the leadership of Senators Pete Domenici (R-NM) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) and Representatives Jim Ramstad (R-MN) and Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) in seeking to end discriminatory health insurance coverage for children and adults with severe mental illnesses and their families.

NAMI is especially pleased that these distinguished legislators have dedicated this important federal legislation to the legacy of the late Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota. Paul Wellstone dedicated much of this career in public service toward ending discrimination against children and adults living with mental illness. As a family member of someone living with mental illness,

Senator Wellstone knew from personal experience how insurance discrimination can lead directly to financial devastation for families and the many tragedies associated with lack of access to mental illness treatment: suicide, broken families, homelessness, substance abuse and interaction with the criminal justice system.

Paul Wellstone established a record of accomplishment on behalf of people with mental illness that is nearly unrivaled in the United States Senate. It is fitting that this new version of the mental illness insurance parity is being named after him and his lifelong goal of ensuring that treatment for illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression and severe anxiety disorders are covered on the same terms and conditions as all other diseases.

This legislation will strengthen current federal law and finish the work that Congress began seven years ago with the Mental Health Parity Act of 1996. It is the same legislation that passed the Senate in October 2001, only to be blocked in the House of Representatives later that year. It will extend to most Americans the equitable coverage of mental illnesses already available to federal employees and to Members of Congress under the Federal Employees Health Benefit Plan (FEHBP) program.

The Paul Wellstone Mental Health Equitable Treatment Act of 2003 is consistent with the goal articulated by President Bush in April 2002 that there is no scientific justification for health insurance plans to cover the treatment of mental illnesses on different terms and conditions from physical illnesses. With its enactment, families across the United States will have more equitable access to effective treatments that are essential to recovery.

The Paul Wellstone Mental Health Equitable Treatment Act of 2003 will require all health insurance plans to meet the standards set by the FEHBP, ending discriminatory treatment limitations and financial requirements. It would cover the full range of mental illnesses, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder (manic depression), major depression, obsessive-compulsive and panic disorders, and serious childhood mental illnesses, among others. This legislation will strengthen the 1996 law by prohibiting unequal restrictions on annual or lifetime mental health benefits, inpatient hospital days, outpatient visits, and out-of-pocket expenses.

The approach is similar to that recently taken by many states. Today the majority of Americans live in states that have parity laws 34 states currently have such laws, with others likely to follow in 2003. But federal legislation is needed as well, in part because the federal ERISA law has allowed self-insured plans to escape state parity requirements.

The total cost of parity is low, because the removal of discriminatory limits is replaced with processes for assessing the medical necessity of proposed treatments. Parity is both affordable and cost-effective. With parity coverage for the treatment of mental illnesses, businesses may also recapture some of the low cost through reduced absenteeism; reduced healthcare costs for physical ailments related to mental illnesses; increased employee morale; and increased overall productivity.

In April 2002, President Bush announced his support for parity legislation and while appointing his "New Freedom" Commission on Mental Health, and promised to work with Senate and House leaders to pass parity "this year." In April 2003, the President's Commission will issue its final report and recommendations for even broader reforms of the nation's mental healthcare system. Parity is an essential first as part of those reforms.

Too often in the past, political leaders have made been to help people with illnesses, only to be broken. We already know how to treat people and support recovery. The problem is that people cannot get the treatment they need when they need it. The Senate previously has passed this legislation. Only a few leaders in the House of Representatives prevented it from becoming law two years ago.

NAMI calls on Congress to act now. Please do not break President Bush's promise. Do not neglect or abandon us. The time to pass parity is now, for all Americans.