Advocates Seek Public Support for Mental Health Legislation

By Ray Carter The Journal Record | THE JOURNAL RECORD, December 3, 2001 | Go to article overview

Advocates Seek Public Support for Mental Health Legislation


Ray Carter The Journal Record, THE JOURNAL RECORD


Local advocates for the mentally ill are urging Oklahoma's congressional delegation to support mental health parity legislation that would force companies to provide similar insurance coverage benefits for both mental and physical illnesses.

"It just absolutely baffles me why mental illness should be treated any differently on insurance than anything else," said Janet Moore, president of the board of directors for the Oklahoma chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.

At a Friday news conference, Moore and other advocates said the hidden costs of mental illness drain billions from the economy each year when untreated. As a result, they said the savings generated would offset the costs of mental health coverage.

But insurers and business officials said the legislation could simply force companies to drop coverage for employees, increasing the number of uninsured.

"When you lobby mandates out at the Legislature (or Congress), of course, every single one of them have great arguments," said Matt Robison, director of small business for The State Chamber. "And they in and of themselves don't add that much to the cost of health care, but when you add them all up it certainly is having a tremendous impact."

At issues is a bill by U.S. Sens. Pete Domenici, R-New Mexico, and Paul Wellstone, D-Minnesota, which would extend a 1996 parity law that expires this year. The federal bill applies only to companies with 50 or more employees. It does not require those companies to provide mental health coverage, but if those companies do choose to offer mental health coverage, it must be comparable to the coverage levels provided for physical illnesses.

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the bill would increase the cost of insurance by 0.9 percent.

Advocates said the bill's cost was worth the benefits it would provide to a growing number of people in the country.

"In mental illness, treatment works, but it can only work if you get it," Moore said.

The U.S. Surgeon General's office has estimated that 91 percent of U.S. residents will experience mental illness problems serious enough to require outside intervention during their life, said George Kotwitz, NAMI Oklahoma consumer counsel representative.

Roughly one in five families are affected by the mental illness of at least one member, Kotwitz said, resulting in lower productivity for all workers in that family.

"There are many families whose financial means have been completely destroyed as a result of (their lack of mental) health insurance coverage," he said.

A federal Department of Health and Human Services report estimated that as many as one-third of non-institutionalized adults (ages 15 to 54) suffer from some form of mental illness every year, Kotwitz said.

Without insurance parity, mental illness often goes untreated, impacting business productivity and eventually draining taxpayer coffers, since the government pays for the treatment of the uninsured, NAMI officials said.

"If the insurance doesn't pay for it, we still pay for it as individuals," Moore said.

For example, studies have shown that depression may be the second- leading cause of insurance expenses in the United States, costing American businesses $29 billion in 1995 due to lost productivity and absenteeism, Moore said.

"That's huge," she said. "The (extra) insurance just isn't going to cost anywhere close (to that). And that's just on depression."

"It's really costing that employer a great deal more for not providing that coverage than it is if he were to provide the coverage," Kotwitz said. …

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