Insuring Mental Health Care Law Aims to Cut out Discrimination in Policies

Article excerpt

For Angela Vickers, the differences that exist in health

insurance coverage for physical health and mental illness send

the wrong message.

"By teaching employers that you can use insurance to

discriminate against people with brain disorders, you teach

society that it is OK," said the 46-year-old Jacksonville woman.

An attorney and mental health advocate who takes Lithium to

treat her own manic-depression, Vickers has little patience for

those who view mental illness as the result of character defects

or bad parenting.

Limiting employees' access to mental health care paves the way

for greater catastrophes, such as hospitalization, that disrupt

jobs, families and lives, she said.

A new federal law that makes it illegal for health plans to

have separate dollar limits on mental and physical health

benefits ought to please her.

As of Jan. 1, when a health plan comes up for renewal, it can

no longer impose a lifetime or annual expense limit on mental

health expenditures, if it does not impose the same limits on

medical and surgical benefits.

For example, until this year, limits such as $50,000 for mental

health coverage and $1 million for physical health benefits were

typical of many insurance plans.

But from the trenches, where Vickers and other advocates sit,

so much more remains to be done: Even the new law does less

than meets the eye.

"Raising the lifetime dollar limit can be illusory," said Andrew

Sperling of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. "This

law is not an end. It is a beginning."

The law applies only to employers with more than 50 workers who

offer mental health benefits.

It fails to prohibit many of the techniques now used to put a

firm lid on employees' mental health spending.

Insurers can still require employees to pay higher deductibles

and co-payment fees on visits to doctors and for prescription

drugs.

And insurers remain free to slap limits on the number of visits

one can make to a doctor, which can achieve the same effect as

capping costs.

The Mental Health Parity Act even allows employers and insurers

to soften the definition of medical necessity when it comes to

providing mental health services, according to the Alliance for

the Mentally Ill.

And, if the law should increase premiums by more than 1

percent, an employer can apply for an exemption. …