A provision in the 2004 budget resolution--produced by U.S. House and Senate conferees and approved by both chambers in April--has given mental health parity backers renewed energy. The budget allowance, championed by Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), sets aside $5.4 billion in a general health account over the next 10 years to offset the cost of lost tax revenues that could result from the passage of the Paul Wellstone Mental Health Equitable Treatment Act. Domenici pushed for this provision to avoid possible future hang-ups with the bill, namely noncompliance with the Budget Act by increasing federal spending for the bill without providing any cost offsets.
The new parity bill closes loopholes, such as limitations in coverage for inpatient stays and outpatient visits, for example, in the 1996 parity law that expires this year. The broad-based bill would prevent group insurance plans from using different limits on mental health services than on physical health care.
The legislation could go to the Senate floor later this summer. Parity advocates expect the most resistance from members of the House. But Domenici's budget push at least erases some potential problems with funding parity, say parity advocates.
"This accomplishment helps pave the way for approval of parity by the Senate this summer," says Peter Newbould, director of congressional and political affairs for APA's Practice Organization. "While there's still a lot of advocacy to do, without Sen. Domenici's persuasive advocacy with Budget Committee members, this parity bill could have been blocked by a point of order."
--J. DAW HOLLOWAY