N.Y. Law Requires Greater Mental Health Coverage

By | December 26, 2006

Tom O’Clair, holding a Christmas ornament with his son’s picture, once again fought back tears as he explained why a new mental health law is needed to avoid tragedies like his 12-year-old son’s suicide.

But this time, the burly biker in a new suit covering up the tattoo of Timothy on his bicep, smiled a bit.

“This is a gift,” O’Clair said of Timothy’s Law, signed last Friday, which will require insurance companies to offer the mental health coverage he couldn’t get for his son. “As Timothy was a gift to us, Timothy’s Law is a gift to New York.”

Gov. George Pataki said the measure will save the lives of thousands and improve the lives of thousands more by requiring coverage of mental illness including depression and eating disorders.

“Today,” Pataki said, “the memories will not all be sad.”

Timothy killed himself in 2001 after Tom and Donna O’Clair had to give up custody of him so he could get publicly-funded treatment for emotional problems.

The bill requires insurance companies to cover 30 inpatient and 20 outpatient days of treatment for mental illness. Companies must fully cover “biologically based mental illnesses” including major depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, anorexia and binge eating.

Timothy’s Law would also require coverage for children with attention deficit disorder, disruptive behavior disorders or disorders that include suicidal symptoms.

The state would pay for the premium increase for companies with 50 or fewer employees.

The measure is expected to increase premiums about 3 percent and no more than 10 percent, while providing a much wider array of mental health services.

“Today is a dramatic step forward for those who suffer from mental illness,” said Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno.

“People with mental illness around New York state will now have parity like people with other illnesses,” said Sen. Thomas Libous, a Broome County Republican, who carried the bill even after he left the mental health committee.

“I knew Tim as a little leaguer,” said Assemblyman Paul Tonko of Montgomery County, a co-sponsor. “He was a bright little guy, full of hope and aspirations.”

The bill has been proposed in some form for 20 years. The O’Clairs have staked out the hallway of the governor’s office and lobbied legislative leaders for years, only to see political deals fall apart. This week they held signs outside the governor’s office even though Pataki was traveling and the Legislature won’t return to session until January.

“It is vital that our society take care of those in need, especially our most vulnerable children,” Pataki said. “I commend the efforts of Tom and Donna O’Clair in helping to get this law enacted.

“Sharing their experiences and sense of loss was no doubt a difficult task, but through their tireless work and the support of numerous groups and individuals, individuals with mental illnesses will benefit,” Pataki said.

Implementation of the law may take some time. The bill was supposed to have been passed by both houses in June, but the Assembly didn’t pass it until this month. That left just days for the industry to adhere to its conditions and Pataki said more time will likely be needed.

The New York Health Plan Association agreed, calling a Jan. 1 start date “simply impractical.”

About 35 states have similar laws.

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