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Senate Poised to Vote on Full Mental Illness Parity Legislation

For Immediate Release, October 30, 2001
Contact: Marie Wyffels

After weeks of delay, the U.S. Senate is very close to a vote on S 543, the Mental Health Equitable Treatment Act. The bill's sponsors, Senators Paul Wellstone (D-MN) and Pete Domenici (R-NM) have been pushing for a vote on parity ever since the Health, Education and, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee reported the bill on August 1. However, the terrorist attacks of September 11 and objections from several senators have delayed this action. Senators Wellstone and Domenici are expected to offer S 543 as an amendment to the FY 2002 Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations bill (HR 3061) as early as today. HR 3061 includes funding for all of the federal government's discretionary health and education programs - including agencies such as NIMH and CMHS.

S 543 Has Broad Bipartisan Senate Support

The outcome of a straight up or down vote on parity is not in doubt. Currently, 64 senators (Democrats and Republicans) are cosponsors of S 543 - more than enough to overcome any filibuster or other delaying tactics. This demonstration of broad bipartisan support for parity is a record NAMI advocates can be proud of. However, even with this strong record of support for full parity in the Senate, a last minute advocacy effort is needed to ensure passage of S 543 this week. It is expected that Senators Wellstone and Domenici will be able to overcome procedural objections to adding S 543 to a spending bill, however, it is expected that there will be an effort to weaken S 543 with an amendment that would allow health plans to exempt themselves from the requirement to offer non-discriminatory coverage. Finally, and most important of all, a large margin of victory in the Senate will send a clear signal to the House of Representatives on the need to act on full parity legislation this year - especially in the aftermath of the expiration of 1996 Mental Health Parity Act in October 1, 2001. Additional background on S 543 is available on-line at:

Action Required

NAMI advocates are strongly encouraged to contact their senators to urge a "yea" vote on S 543 and end to discrimination against individuals with severe mental illnesses and their families. All senators are strongly encouraged to drop any and all procedural objections to an immediate vote on full parity legislation. NAMI also opposes weakening amendments, including an expected effort to impose a cost increase exemption (i.e. an amendment that would allow health plans to exempt themselves, or to nullify the law, if insurance premiums or the number of uninsured exceed projected levels).

All Senate offices can be reached by calling the Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121 or by going to the policy page of the NAMI Web site at and click on "Write to Congress." However, the recent discovery of anthrax in several congressional office buildings has significantly disrupted the operation of many Senate offices - especially mail delivery and phone operations. At the same time, all local state offices of U.S. senators remain fully operational. Therefore, NAMI advocates are strongly encouraged to contact field offices for senators that are listed in the Federal Government sections of the "Blue Pages" in local phone books. NAMI advocates choosing to send an e-mail are encouraged to include their local address to ensure that staff understand that the call to support S 543 is coming from a constituent.

In your contact with senators, please remind them that:

  • mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and severe anxiety disorders are real illnesses,
  • treatment works - if consumers and their families can get it (treatment efficacy rates for most severe mental illnesses exceed those for heart disease and diabetes),
  • there is simply no scientific or medical justification for insurance coverage of mental illness treatment to be on different terms and conditions than other diseases,
  • discriminatory insurance coverage of mental illness bankrupts families and places a tremendous burden on taxpayers,
  • parity is affordable - the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that S 543 will increase insurance premiums by less than 1% (a finding that is consistent with numerous previous studies that demonstrate how non-discriminatory coverage is economical and results in better treatment outcomes),
  • a cost increase exemption for S 543 is unnecessary and would have the perverse effect of rewarding health plans that fail to implement parity in a cost effective way by overseeing treatment outcomes and ensuring adherence to evidence-based practice,
  • 34 states have enacted parity laws similar to S 543, but even these laws offer no protection for workers and their families that receive coverage through self-insured ERISA plans, and
  • renewing the 1996 Mental Health Parity Act for an indefinite period would wipe out an important opportunity to end insurance discrimination against people with mental illnesses once and for all.

Editors Note: (to NAMI E-News Vol. 02-27)
In addition to Dr. Hyman's resignation as NIMH Director, advocates for severe mental illness research suffered another loss with the announcement last week that National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Director Alan Leshner was leaving to become head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Dr. Leshner is a former Acting Director of NIMH and a strong advocate for mental illness research. During his seven-year tenure at NIDA, he played a key role in pushing research on effective treatments for co-occurring mental illness and substance abuse that has become the scientific foundation in support of integrated treatment. His new position at AAAS affords him a tremendous opportunity to be a national spokesman on scientific research. His leadership at NIDA will be missed.