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The Mental Health Equitable Treatment Act of 1999 (S.796)


On May 18, 2000, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee held its first hearing on mental illness parity since passage of the Mental Health Parity Act in 1996. The hearing focused both on implementation of the 1996 law and efforts to expand the law to full parity. Drawing most of the attention at the hearing was Senator Domenici and Senator Wellstone’s bill to expand the MHPA to full parity. This bill, the Mental Health Equitable Treatment Act (S. 796), will finish the work that Congress began in 1996 – and that 32 states have followed up on with their own parity laws. S. 796 would also provide to all insured Americans similar parity coverage to that in the Federal Employees Health Benefit Plan (FEHBP) – the program covering 9.5 million federal workers and their families (including members of Congress). NAMI strongly supports S. 796 as a critical step forward in the process of ending health insurance discrimination against people with severe mental illness.

The Mental Health Equitable Treatment Act – The Drive for Full Parity

On April 14, 1999, Senators Domenici and Wellstone introduced S. 796. This legislation firmly states that severe mental illnesses are biologically based illnesses of the brain and should be treated like any other medical illness. The bill targets specific adult and childhood mental illnesses and defines the term "severe biologically-based mental illnesses" as illnesses determined by medical science in conjunction with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV) to be severe and biologically-based. As defined in S. 796, these disorders are: schizophrenia, bipolar disorder (or manic depression), major depression, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), autism, and other severe and disabling mental disorders such as anorexia nervosa and attention deficit/hyper activity disorder (ADHD).

S. 796 contains critically important expansions of the 1996 Mental Health Parity Act (its requirements were limited to equal annual and lifetime dollar limits in health plans). By requiring that all limitations on the coverage for "severe biologically-based mental illnesses" be equal to those for medical and surgical benefits, S. 796 will once and for all end discrimination. No longer would insurance plans be able to impose arbitrary caps on inpatient days and outpatient visits. No longer would health plans be able to charge higher co-payment and deductible requirements that apply only to treatment for mental illness.

S. 796 also lowers the current 50-employee small business exemption to 25, thereby expanding parity coverage to an additional 15 million people. Finally, S. 796 proposes to remove the current September 30, 2001 sunset provision and 1% cost exemption (the provision in the MHPA that allows employers to exempt themselves if they can demonstrate that costs rose more than 1% due to compliance) in the 1996 Mental Health Parity Act.

Action Requested

All NAMI advocates are urged to contact their senators immediately and urge them to cosponsor S. 796. All senators can be reached by calling the Capitol switchboard at 202-224-3121 or by going to the policy page on the NAMI web site at and click on "Write to Congress."

Cosponsors of S. 796

Are your senators cosponsors of this important parity legislation? If yes, please call and thank them for their support. If either of your senators are not on this list, please call their office and urge their support and co-sponsorship of S. 796. Please do not accept a vague promise of support "when the bill comes to a vote." The reality is that S. 796 needs additional cosponsors – with appropriate bipartisan balance – in order to bring the Mental Health Equitable Treatment Act of 2000 to vote before the full Senate.

To find out if your senators are co-sponsors of S.796, please visit

Text of Legislation