On Nov. 15, both the U.S. House and Senate approved a bill that extends the Mental Health Parity Act of 1996 for one year, until December 31, 2003.
The 1996 law, which was set to expire last December after having already been extended once, requires that health plans offering mental health benefits provide the same lifetime and annual dollar limits for mental and medical or surgical care.
While the extension does ensure that current protections won't lapse during this year, many mental health advocates agree that more extensive parity legislation is needed. APA and 250 other national organizations are still working to pass the Mental Health Equitable Treatment Act--a broad-based parity bill that would require all insurance plans to provide the same level of coverage for mental and physical health care. This bill was introduced last year by Sens. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and the late Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) and Reps. Marge Roukema (R-N.J.) and Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.). Though 67 senators and 243 representatives supported the bill, several factors led to its dismissal, says Peter Newbould, director of congressional and political affairs for APA's Practice Organization. Those factors included new leadership, mid-term elections and the tragic death of Sen. Wellstone.
Regardless, key members of Congress have not given up the fight for parity. Sen. Domenici has pledged to make full mental health parity--calling the bill the "Paul Wellstone Memorial Parity for Mental Illness Bill"--his top priority in the 108th Congress.
"All parity advocates will have to restate the need to pass legislation to ban insurance discrimination against people with mental disorders," says Newbould.
--J. DAW HOLLOWAY