HHS unveiling rules for mental health coverage

(Bloomberg) -- Insurers will be required to cover mental illness to the same degree as physical ailments as the Obama administration moves forward with the largest U.S. expansion of behavioral health care in a generation.

Five years after the Mental Health Parity act was passed, and almost a year after the Sandy Hook shooting, regulations to fully implement the law are being released today. The new rules mean insurers won’t be able to charge higher co-payments or deductibles for mental illness or limit the duration of care.

Failures in treating mental illness have swelled the workload of police and pushed more emotionally disturbed people into emergency rooms, where they are less likely to get proper care. The rules today expand or protect behavioral health benefits for more than 60 million people, Kathleen Sebelius, the U.S. health secretary, said at an event today in Atlanta.

“The parity law, which also applies to policies sold through the exchanges under the Affordable Care Act, is a milestone that recognizes how integral mental health is to overall health and ends discrimination,” said Steve Vetzner, a spokesman for Mental Health America, a lobbying group in Alexandria, Virginia. “This provides greater clarity.”

The Obama administration also considers the rules to be a chief component of an effort to reduce gun violence. The White House included improving mental health services as one of 23 executive actions to combat gun violence after 26 children and adults were killed in a December shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

“The personal toll for families and individuals is beyond their experience,” Sebelius said today of the mental health parity rules. “This is a personal toll that we take on as a country to help people achieve the promise of recovery.”

A common theme in many of the nation’s worst mass shootings is the gunman’s history of mental illness, including in Newtown, as well as massacres at the Washington Navy Yard this year, at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater in 2012 and at the Virginia Tech campus in 2007.

The rules being issued today will provide the most definitive regulatory standard to date for implementing the Mental Health Parity Act of 2008, which then-President George W. Bush signed into law. Bush left office in 2009 without ever writing rules to implement the core part of that law. President Barack Obama’s administration issued interim rules in 2010 that still left many aspects of the law open to interpretation.

In January 2013, largely in response to the Newtown shooting, Obama said he would issue final rules this year.

The rules apply to almost all health plans in the nation including new ones sold under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, known as Obamacare.

Sebelius and Obama face criticism from Republicans and some in their own party for the faltering debut of the Obamacare insurance exchanges. The federal website to sell insurance, healthcare.gov, remains plagued by errors and stalls that prevent many people from signing up.

Obama apologized yesterday in an interview with NBC News to people who have seen their current health plans canceled, as insurers replace them with plans that comply with the new law.

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