History was made today at the Carter Center in Atlanta. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius made a long-awaited announcement at the 29th Annual Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Policy Symposium: Health insurance companies must cover mental illness and substance abuse just as they cover physical diseases. Secretary Sebelius’s speech may be read here in its entirety.
In 2008, Congress passed the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, marking an important step forward in efforts to end discrimination in insurance coverage for mental health and substance use disorder treatment. While the act closed several loopholes left by the 1996 Mental Health Parity Act, it has taken five years to finalize the law. The 2008 act lacked clarity on how parity is to be achieved, particularly when treatment involves intensive care at physician offices or long-term hospital stays.
Today’s ruling provides clarification on how parity applies to residential treatments and outpatient care. It also ensures that copayments, deductibles, and limits on mental health benefits are not more restrictive or provide less coverage than those for medical and surgical benefits, including geographic or facility limitations. These have been tremendous barriers to treatment thus far and represent a significant triumph for the behavioral health community.
“This is the largest expansion of behavioral health coverage in a generation,” declared Secretary Sebelius. Addressing the need for adequate care for mental health has been a goal for more than 50 years, when President John F. Kennedy signed the Community Mental Health Center Act of 1963 into law.
At long last, treatment for behavioral health disorders is regarded as equal to other types of healthcare. This represents a significant achievement in behavioral health and should contribute to the ongoing effort to reduce the stigma. Millions fail to follow up with needed treatment because of stigma. With this final ruling and with movement toward integrated care, we will finally be able to improve access.
What will the world be like when people begin to actually receive that needed treatment?