Through a Back Door Darkly: New Mental Health Insurance Requirements: Costly and Mandatory Mental Health Coverage Sneaks through in the Federal Bailout Bill

By Vatz, Richard E.; Schaler, Jeffrey A. | USA TODAY, January 2009 | Go to article overview

Through a Back Door Darkly: New Mental Health Insurance Requirements: Costly and Mandatory Mental Health Coverage Sneaks through in the Federal Bailout Bill


Vatz, Richard E., Schaler, Jeffrey A., USA TODAY


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IT HAS THE KIND of intuitive appeal that should make thoughtful people skeptical-mandatory insurance coverage for all mental illnesses by all companies that cover mental illness at all. What images come to mind? Many, perhaps most, conjure up pictures of cognitively damaged people who are at the mercy of something called "mental illness." In this fantasy, mental illness can strike without warning and leave individuals involuntarily debilitated, walking around aimlessly, spouting incomprehensible "word salad."

With its major audience a government with increasing control over its citizens' daily fives and a credulous general public mystified by the allegedly medical components of the edifice of mental health care, psychiatric self-interest groups have tried for years to force insurance companies to cover the treatment of mental illness and addiction. Treating depression as well as disturbing and sometimes simple problems in riving on the same level as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes is the essence of what has come to be known as "parity."

Now, through political legerdemain, this government-mandated coverage has become law as an undebated amendment attached to the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008. Thus, a proposal which had failed in a variety of forms for over a decade to enforce mental health parity has become law. The parity amendment requires that mental health and substance use disorder benefits be "no more restrictive than the predominant financial requirements applied to substantially all medical and surgical benefits covered" by an insurance group health plan or coverage (only if said plan covers mental illness). Again, to the untutored ear, this has a reasonable sound to it. Logicians would say its supporting arguments sport a sort of "face validity." Yet, this legislation, unless reversed--or at least modified to apply only to organic-based mental disorders-is likely to open up a Pandora's box for the U.S. health care system.

Organic-based mental disorders are those with known physiological bases. Regardless of what many "experts" and laypersons say, there ate no known brain lesions or organic causes responsible for "mental illness." If there were, these would be brain or neurological diseases, not mental diseases. These would be identified by their physical origins. Another way to understand the difference here between brain disease, for example, and mental illness is this: brain disease usually is characterized by cognitive deficit, e.g., short-term memory loss; mental illness, by false claims--self-reported imaginings, also known as hallucinations.

Addiction often is treated with religion. Alcoholics Anonymous is the best example. Courts in the U.S. increasingly are viewing AA as a religious activity. When courts order people into AA, or when states give money to addiction treatment providers utilizing AA's "12 Steps," the free exercise and establishment clauses of the First Amendment are violated. The $35,000,000 Federal project MATCH of a few years ago showed that AA is as effective as the best contemporary psychology has to offer when it comes to treatment of alcoholism. We know from past studies that AA is as effective as leaving people to their own devices. It is important to remember, particularly in light of the parity bill, that AA and other self-help groups are free. No money needs to be appropriated to them at all. In fact, they do better without Federal or state subsidy. Quietly slipping the parity requirement into the financial bailout bill surreptitiously adjudicates by legislative flat a halt-century of contentious debate over the definition of "mental illness," whether "psychiatric disorders" are medical disorders, and the nature of addiction. What it does not address are the many valid objections to the entire concept of mental health parity-objections that barely have been allowed to see the light of day and indisputably never have been resolved satisfactorily. …

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