Association News
Equity for Mental Illness
Psychiatric News
Volume 37 Number 19 page 8-8

The following editorial appeared in the Washington Post on Monday, September 9.

Last spring President Bush announced a new commitment to improving mental health care for Americans. He cited unfair limits on treatment as one major obstacle to effective care and pledged to seek legislation by year’s end to require that insurance plans treat mental illnesses in the same way they treat other medical ailments. Now time is getting short and the calendar is crowded, but Congress still should approve a parity bill, and Mr. Bush, recalling his pledge, should help make it happen.

This isn’t the position we took when we last examined the subject, last year, and many of the issues that troubled us then haven’t disappeared. Parity legislation is not a panacea. It won’t help the uninsured. There’s a risk that, by raising costs, it could cause some employers to weaken or abandon existing coverage or charge employees more for benefits. Congress tends to be much more interested in providing benefits than in dealing with their costs: That’s especially true for a mandate like this, in which the costs would be borne almost entirely by the private sector. Businesses wrestling with double-digit increases in health care costs are fighting any move that would add even marginally to the problem.

But two factors now seem to us to outweigh those concerns. The first is practical: Experience in both the federal employees’ insurance system and in states that have enacted their own parity laws argues that, by managing care, insurers can move toward equal treatment without crippling cost increases. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that enacting the parity bill now pending in Congress would add just less than one percent to the overall national cost of insurance premiums, though specific costs will vary from business to business depending on what benefits are offered. Insurers, CBO noted this spring, still will be able to exercise the management tools that have been used in the past to decide what treatments are appropriate and warranted, and to hold down expenses. The right response to the gathering health care crisis is to fix the system, not make the mentally ill bear a disproportionate burden.

The second factor is one of fundamental fairness, and of removing the stigma that for too long has shrouded mental illness. Many mental disorders can be clearly diagnosed and effectively treated; some can’t. The same can be said of cancers. The pending legislation would require large employers who offer coverage for mental and other illness to handle all disorders in essentially the same way: You can’t put treatment limits or financial requirements on mental health benefits that are not imposed on physical ailments. Insurers would not have to pay for what is not medically effective. It’s not a huge step, but it would help some people get the treatment they need. It’s right to level the field.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company. Reprinted with permission.

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