According to data released today by the White House, 172,000 Rhode Islanders will gain access to expanded mental health and substance use disorder benefits and federal parity protections thanks to the Affordable Care Act (ACA). U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), a strong advocate for mental health parity, applauded the announcement as the latest example of the ACA improving care for Rhode Islanders.
"For too long, Americans suffering from mental health conditions have been stigmatized, misdiagnosed, and poorly treated," said Whitehouse. "The new benefits provided through the health care law will complement the landmark mental health parity law championed by Congressman Patrick Kennedy in 2008, and are an important step toward improving care for mental health patients. It's long past time to recognize that mental health is just as important as physical health by providing equal access to care, and the Affordable Care Act is helping us do so."
Because of the health care law, for the first time insurance companies in the individual and small group market are required to cover mental health and substance use disorder services as one of ten categories of essential health benefits. Additionally, insurance companies must cover these services at parity with medical and surgical benefits, which means, for example, out-of-pocket costs for behavioral health services must be comparable to coverage for medical and surgical care.
An estimated one in five adults experiences a mental health problem in any given year. While most mental health problems are treatable, mental health patients too often cannot access needed treatment if they do not have health insurance that covers mental health services. The Affordable Care Act requires most health plans to cover recommended preventive services like depression screenings for adults and behavioral assessments for children at no cost to consumers. And, because of the law, starting in 2014 insurers will not be able to deny coverage or charge individuals more due to pre-existing conditions, including mental health problems.
Over the past several years, Senator Whitehouse has emerged as one of the leaders in Congress on mental health issues. He strongly supported Congressman Kennedy's Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act in 2008, and in 2010 Whitehouse and Kennedy teamed up to introduce the Health Information Technology (HIT) Extension for Behavioral Health Services Act. That bill would have made federal HIT incentives available to behavioral health, mental health, and substance abuse treatment providers who are currently ineligible to receive incentives available to a majority of medical professionals and facilities. Whitehouse has continued working on that legislation since Kennedy's retirement, reintroducing it earlier this year.