- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 28, 2006

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Advocates think they have a good chance of getting Congress to pass legislation next year that would require equal health insurance coverage for mental and physical illnesses, if employees’ policies include both.

The legislation, named for the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, a Minnesota Democrat who championed the cause, has strong support in Congress but has run into Republican roadblocks. In the last congressional session, 231 House members signed on as co-sponsors. The Republican leadership, which in the past had expressed concern that the proposal would drive up health insurance premiums, wouldn’t bring it up for a vote.

In 2003, Senate Democrats tried to win passage of the bill as a tribute to Mr. Wellstone, who died in a plane crash the previous year. Republicans blocked an attempt to pass it by unanimous consent.

“I’m very optimistic that 2007 will finally be the year that our health care system recognizes that the brain is, in fact, a part of the body,” said Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, Rhode Island Democrat who sponsored the bill in the last Congress.

Mr. Kennedy has worked to erase the stigma of depression and other mental health problems and has been candid about his own mental health, including being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He also has acknowledged being in recovery for alcoholism and substance abuse.

Mr. Kennedy’s lead co-sponsor, Rep. Jim Ramstad, Minnesota Republican, said a “silver lining” to the Democrats winning both houses of Congress is the increased chances of passing the bill.

“The Republican leadership would not give us a vote,” said Mr. Ramstad, a recovering alcoholic who has pushed for improved treatment for those with alcohol and drug dependency.

Mr. Ramstad said House Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi has told him the bill will come up for a vote on the House floor, which Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly confirmed.

“We need to deal as a nation with America’s No. 1 health problem,” Mr. Ramstad said. “It’s not only the right thing to do, but the cost-effective thing do.”

Prospects also have improved in the Senate. Majority Leader-elect Harry Reid is a big backer of mental health parity, as is Mr. Kennedy’s father, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat who will become chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee next month.

A 1996 law already prohibits health plans that offer mental health coverage from setting lower annual and lifetime spending limits for mental treatments than for physical ailments. But backers want to see that expanded to things such as co-payments, deductibles and limits on doctor visits.

J.P. Fielder, a spokesman for the National Association of Manufacturers, said his group doesn’t support “additional mandates to health care coverage that will drive up these costs to employers.”

Andrew Sperling, a lobbyist for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, said the bill was not a mandate because it doesn’t require insurance plans to provide mental health coverage.

“We don’t want to get in the trap of making this a mandate,” he said. “We believe this is a coverage condition.”

He added: “We believe the brain is an organ like any other, and coverage should be equitable.”

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