Capping a long battle, the Senate passed legislation this week that would require equal health insurance coverage for mental and physical illnesses when policies include both.
The bill, which passed by unanimous consent, moves advocates one step closer in their years-long quest for a concept known as mental health parity.
“The passage tonight of the Mental Health Parity bill underscores our commitment to treat all patients facing all diseases with the dignity and respect they deserve,” said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. “This new legislation will bring dramatic new help to millions of Americans who today are denied needed mental health care and treatment.”
Passage came on the same day that supporters inundated House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, urging a vote on mental health parity legislation in the House.
The call-in was organized by Wellstone Action, a group founded to carry out the work of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., who had championed the legislation for years. The House version is called the “Paul Wellstone Mental Health and Addiction Equity Act.”
Wellstone Action is urging a vote by the middle of next month. The bill has 270 co-sponsors, more than half of the House membership.
Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly said that the speaker supports the legislation and would like it to come to a vote on the floor soon. He said a mid-October vote was a realistic target.
That bill is sponsored by Kennedy’s son, Rep. Patrick Kennedy, a Rhode Island Democrat who has battled depression, alcoholism and drug abuse, and Rep. Jim Ramstad, a Minnesota Republican who is a recovering alcoholic.
“That’s the most important legacy I could leave to literally millions of Americans, and we’re going to get that done,” Ramstad said this week in announcing he would not seek re-election next year.
“That’s not just another public policy issue,” he added, “that’s a life-or-death issue for millions of Americans.”
Patrick Kennedy predicted the House will pass the bill before the end of the year.
“I would hope Jim’s Republican colleagues would want to support this because it’s a great tribute to him and his passion for this issue,” he said. “There’s no greater tribute you can have for Jim Ramstad than to pass a meaningful mental health parity bill.”
The House Education and Labor Committee approved the legislation in July, but two other committees also have jurisdiction as well: Ways and Means, and Energy and Commerce. A Ways and Means subcommittee is scheduled to take up the bill on Wednesday.
Wellstone’s son, David Wellstone, who is co-chairman of the Wellstone Action board, said he had no doubt that Pelosi supported the bill.
“But it’s always helpful to have the speaker pushing hard,” he said. “This is just a little backup. We need the momentum. With a crowded calendar, it’s hard to get your stuff going.”
Wellstone, who died in a plane crash in 2002, championed the issue for years. In 1996, he and Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., won passage of a law banning plans that offer mental health coverage from setting lower annual and lifetime spending limits for mental treatments than for physical ailments.
Both the House and Senate bills would build on that by adding things like co-payments, deductibles and treatment limitations, a longtime goal of Wellstone’s.
The Senate bill was sponsored by Edward Kennedy along with Domenici and Mike Enzi, R-Wyo.
Domenici called the passage of the bill significant.
“I believe it sets the stage for us to enact a national policy that will ensure individuals with mental illness have parity between mental health coverage and medical and surgical coverage. It is a matter of simple fairness,” Domenici said.
Originally, that bill called for pre-emption of state parity laws in treatment limitations and financial requirements, causing a rift between supporters of the House and Senate bills. The Senate bill dropped that provision, but Wellstone argued the House bill was still superior because it specifically says that state laws will not be pre-empted.
The House version also specifies that if a plan provides mental health benefits, then it must cover conditions provided by the health plan with the highest average enrollment of federal employees. The Senate legislation does not include that language.
“It’s important that we continue to work with the House to further strengthen this bill as the process advances,” said Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn.
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