1996 Mental Health Parity Act Set to Expire in Three Days
Senators Domenici and Wellstone Push for Action Full Parity Bill
For Immediate Release, September 28, 2001
Contact: Marie Wyffels
With the sunset of the 1996 Mental Health Parity Act only days away, Senate sponsors of full parity legislation are pushing for expedited action on S 543, the Mental Health Equitable Treatment Act. Earlier this week, Senators Paul Wellstone (D-MN) and Pete Domenici (R-NM) had hoped to force a vote on S 543 the week of October 1 (the limited 1996 federal parity law expires on October 1) but several senators objected, forcing further delay on a Senate vote.
Congressional action on parity legislation had been expected prior to October 1, however the Senate has suspended action on nearly all bills that are not directly related to the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon. With the sunset of the 1996 parity law now set to occur, the Senate can be expected to take up S 543 in the near future, once procedural objections are overcome.
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 week, four more senators added their names as cosponsors - Bill Frist (R-TN), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Richard Shelby (R-AL), and Ron Wyden (D-OR). This demonstration of broad bipartisan support for parity is a record NAMI advocates can be proud of.
The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee unanimously approved S 543 on August 1, after adding provisions to ensure that health plans can implement parity in a cost effective way. A strong bipartisan Senate vote in favor of full parity legislation is critically important to building support in the House and pushing the White House toward publicly endorsing the bill (President Bush signed the Texas state parity bill in 1997).
NAMI advocates are strongly encouraged to contact their senators to urge quick Senate action on S 543. While NAMI respects the need for Congress to focus first on national security and the international response to terrorism, the Senate should also move forward on the bipartisan support that exists for full parity. Thus, all senators are strongly encouraged to drop any and all procedural objections to a quick 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 www.nami.org/policy.htm and click on "Write to Congress." 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),
- 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.
As noted above, the limited 1996 federal parity law does expire at midnight on September 30. The sunset of the 1996 law is expected to have little immediate impact. First, the 1996 law is limited in its scope to parity for annual and lifetime dollar limits only, i.e. it does not cover discriminatory restrictions on inpatient days, outpatient visits or higher cost sharing requirements that apply only to mental illness coverage. More importantly, since most group health plans operate on the basis of previously negotiated contracts with employers it is not expected that lower annual and lifetime dollar limits could be reimposed in the middle of a contract year. Moreover, since the 1996 law was so limited, it has allowed employers tremendous discretion to tighten other restrictions in their plans (treatment limits, deductibles, enrollee cost sharing, etc.), there is little incentive for plans to immediately lower annual and lifetime dollar caps The response from employers to the 1996 law was documented in a May 2000 General Accounting Office (GAO) study that can be accessed on-line at www.gao.gov.