Friday, November 8, 2013

The Obama administration, fresh off an apology from President Obama to Americans who are losing their current health plans under his new health care law, forged ahead Friday with rules that place mental health and substance abuse care on equal footing with medical and surgical benefits.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced the “historic” step in Atlanta alongside former first lady Rosalynn Carter — a longtime champion for mental health research — in a nod toward the generation-long effort to make sure millions of Americans with behavioral health problems get the same care as patients with physical issues.

“For way too long, the health care system has openly discriminated against people with behavioral health problems,” Mrs. Sebelius said on a conference call with reporters.

The announcement marks movement on one of 23 executive actions that Vice President Joe Biden developed to address gun violence in the wake of the December 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Conn.

The rule is the product of two laws — the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008, which put behavioral issues on par with physical health benefits, and the Affordable Care Act, which is supposed to connect people health insurance that must cover a broad array of services, including mental health, according to Mrs. Sebelius.

Regulations published Friday say mental health and substance abuse coverage must be based on the same clinical and cost considerations as general care.

They also demand transparency from insurers, especially when a claim for behavioral health coverage is denied, and call for parity in “intermediate” care between hospitals and doctors, such as intensive outpatient or residential treatment for behavioral health issues.

The administration pitched Mrs. Sebelius’ announcement as a breakthrough that was a half-century in the making, as the White House fends off criticism over the website’s shortcomings in helping Americans in 36 states find health insurance under Obamacare.

In an interview with NBC News, Mr. Obama apologized late Thursday to Americans who are receiving cancellation notices from their insurers because their plans do not meet Obamacare’s minimum-coverage standards — despite his previous repeated insistence that Americans would not have to give up their existing health coverage under the new law.

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