Representative Heather Wilson today led a roundtable discussion with New Mexico mental health professionals and advocates to discuss legislation she's pushing in Congress to help those with mental illnesses get the treatment they need.
"Senator Domenici has led the effort to pass mental health parity in the Congress," said Wilson today. "We need to get this done. There are 370,000 people in New Mexico with some form of a mental disorder, and we owe it to them to put mental health on the same footing with physical care. We want people to be healthy in body and spirit, and this bill is an important step to equalizing that care."
New Mexico is home to approximately 370,000 individuals with some form of mental disorder. Of those, 71,000 adults have a serious mental illness, which includes individuals with schizophrenia, manic depression, major depression, panic disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. In addition, there are nearly 19,000 children and adolescents in New Mexico with a severe emotional disturbance.
Domenici has been working on the issue of mental health parity for more than ten years.
"I've spent much of my career trying to raise mental health awareness and to end discrimination against people who suffer from these illnesses. I am pleased the House is actively debating mental health parity legislation, and Senator Kennedy and I are committed to getting the President a bill to sign this year," said Domenici.
Wilson says Domenici's version of the bill, passed by the Senate on September 18, 2007, represents a bipartisan compromise negotiated over two years with the support of the mental health community, the business community, and the insurance industry. Wilson says it is the only bill that has a chance to become law.
But this week she encountered roadblocks in the House, as the House version of the bill is different than Senator Domenici's.
This week Wilson offered an amendment in a Health Subcommittee mark-up to H.R. 1424, The Paul Wellstone Mental Health Addiction Equity Act of 2007, to strengthen the bill and ensure it closely resembles S. 588, the already-passed Senate mental health bill. The Senate bill was co-authored by Senators Pete Domenici and Ted Kennedy. Wilson's amendment would replace a section of the House bill dealing with mental health parity for health insurance plans with language from the Senate bill.
Wilson's amendment failed 9 to 19.
Wilson supports passage of strong mental health parity legislation, but believes the Senate bill is much better policy than the bill currently under consideration in the House.
Mental health parity would eliminate the financial disparities in group health plans with regards to co-pays and deductibles and restrictions on the number of visits experienced by those afflicted with mental illness compared those who suffer from physical medical conditions.
The House bill requires coverage of all mental health conditions listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV) manual if any mental conditions are covered.
"By requiring plans to cover all conditions in the DSM IV manual, it makes it more likely that employers and health insurance companies won't cover any mental health benefits. This would hurt coverage for serious mental health conditions like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia," says Wilson.
Wilson's amendment would have fixed this situation by adopting the Senate standard that allows insurance plans to cover only serious, biologically-based mental conditions.
"This legislation should strengthen coverage of mental conditions and improve access to needed benefits, not weaken them," says Wilson.
Wilson is also concerned that the House-introduced legislation preempts state laws in some areas when convenient, and does not preempt state laws in other areas. It allows for the preemption of state coverage laws when weaker than the new federal standard, but may allow new causes of action in state courts because it does not preempt state laws on "rights and remedies."
The Senate bill is the only language that can pass the Senate and become law.
Mental health providers and advocates in New Mexico support Senator Domenici's and Rep. Wilson's efforts in Congress to pass mental health parity.
"Mental health parity is a significant step forward for all psychiatric patients and their families," says Dr. Howard Berger, the medical director for Presbyterian Behavioral Health and President of the Psychiatric Medical Association of New Mexico.
"Parity is necessary for families whose loved ones have mental illness in order to avoid financial ruin," says Loretta Enochs, a New Mexico member of the National Association on Mental Illness.