- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 30, 2002

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. President Bush yesterday broke with key House Republicans by urging Congress to pass pending legislation that would force private health care plans to treat psychiatric illnesses the same as any other medical disorder.
Known as "mental health parity," the proposed bill would require employers to provide mental health coverage with premiums and co-payments no higher than those for other maladies.
"Our country must make a commitment: Americans with mental illness deserve our understanding and they deserve excellent care. They deserve a health care system that treats their illness with the same urgency as a physical illness," the president said in a speech at the University of New Mexico.
Mr. Bush later gave a speech in Los Angeles, where he mentioned the 10th anniversary of America's largest riot in the 20th century. The president did not use the word "riot."
More than 50 people were killed during a week of violence in Los Angeles in what black leaders and leftists pointedly called a "rebellion" or "uprising."
In a meeting at a church hall about five miles from the flashpoint of the riot, Mr. Bush told an ethnically mixed congregation that "my job as the president is to rally the spirit of the nation." He then compared the rebuilding of Los Angeles to America's resilience after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
"I fully understand that 10 years ago this city because there was some violence, a lot of violence saw incredible destruction in lives and property," Mr. Bush said. "And yet out of this violence and ugliness came new hope to show the rest of the country what is possible, what can happen in America when people put aside differences and focus on what's best for all."
About 200 people protested Mr. Bush's visit, claiming that nothing had changed in the 10 years since the riots.
In his New Mexico speech, Mr. Bush who as governor of Texas passed a state law mandating parity said Americans who suffer from schizophrenia, clinical depression or obsessive-compulsive or bipolar disorders often "fall through the cracks."
"Insurance plans too often place greater restrictions on the treatment of mental illness than on the treatment of other medical illnesses. As a result, some Americans are unable to get effective medical treatments that would allow them to function well in their daily lives," he said.
The president also said the "stigma" of mental illness is "caused by a history of misunderstanding, fear and embarrassment." Some 17 million Americans suffer from at least one of four major mental disorders, which have a direct cost to the United States of nearly $150 billion per year.
The Senate bill proposed by Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota and Republican Sen. Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, who has a child suffering from schizophrenia faces a fierce fight on Capitol Hill. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois and Republican Whip Tom DeLay of Texas oppose the bill because, they say, it would increase costs on employers and employees.
Republicans in the House, as well as some business groups, fear the legislation would increase the cost of health insurance significantly.
Rep. John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, warned yesterday of the potential costs of such a mandate and the effect they would have on the health-insurance market for others.
State parity laws have succeeded because "they've struck an appropriate balance that doesn't jeopardize workers' existing benefits or discourage employers from voluntarily providing quality benefits to their employees," he said in a statement. "To ignore these important factors would only invite an unacceptable expansion in the ranks of the uninsured."
Mr. Bush said he planned to work with the House speaker and other congressional leaders to move the bill "this year" and to make sure costs are contained.
"It is critical as we provide full mental health parity that we do not significantly run up the cost of health care," he said. Some studies estimate such a mandate would raise premiums as little as 1 percent.
Said Mr. Domenici, who attended yesterday's event: "We are now working together to reach an agreement on new legislation to improve the ability of those who suffer from severe mental illnesses to access the care they need."
One issue under discussion is whether the bill will cover some 200 disorders listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, as the sponsoring senators want.
Parity long had been backed by Democrats, including Tipper Gore, who championed the cause when her husband was vice president. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota said he hoped to have a vote on the legislation soon.
In his speech, Mr. Bush announced the formation of a federal commission to develop recommendations on improving the nation's mental health system. The commission will investigate ways to coordinate federal, state and local agencies overseeing mental health programs and providers.
The panel, to be led by Dr. Michael Hogan, director of the Ohio Department of Mental Health, will be composed of 15 members appointed by the president.


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