Thursday, July 10, 2008

Wellstone son launches push on mental health bill

The son of the late Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone made a big push Wednesday for mental health insurance long championed by his father, leading a call-in effort urging Congress to take up the legislation before its August recess.

David Wellstone wants Congress to approve legislation that would mandate equal health insurance coverage for mental and physical illnesses when policies cover both, known as mental health parity. The bill is co-sponsored by Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island.

The Senate and House have already passed different versions of the bill, but negotiators have reached a compromise. Now, the sticking point is finding a way to pay for it.

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated the House bill would cost the federal government around $3.9 billion over 10 years -- $820 million in increased Medicaid costs, and $3.1 billion in lost tax revenue. That latter figure assumes that employees would receive more of their compensation in nontaxable employer-paid premiums, and less in taxable wages.

"Now that the House and Senate have agreed on a compromise bill, we are so close," David Wellstone wrote to supporters. He said in a telephone interview that he expected thousands of people would call in to push for passage -- and he was hopeful for a vote next week.

Under the compromise, House backers agreed to drop a requirement that said that if a plan provides mental health benefits, it must cover mental illnesses and addiction disorders listed in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is used by mental health professionals. The Senate bill did not have that requirement.

But the Senate negotiators made concessions, too, including agreeing to some of the House language requiring parity for out-of-network coverage.

The House bill was sponsored by Kennedy, who has battled depression, alcoholism and drug abuse, and Rep. Jim Ramstad, R-Minn., a recovering alcoholic who is Kennedy's Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor.

"This is literally a life-or-death issue for millions of Americans suffering from mental illness and addiction," Ramstad said, "and I'm grateful we are so close to enacting legislation for which we've fought so long and hard." Ramstad is retiring at the end of the term.

The House bill was named for Paul Wellstone, a Minnesota Democrat who died in a plane crash in 2002. In 1996, he and Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., won passage of a law banning plans that offer mental health coverage from setting lower annual and lifetime spending limits for mental treatments than for physical ailments. The new legislation would build on that by adding things like co-payments, deductibles and treatment limitations, a longtime goal of Wellstone's.

The Senate bill was sponsored by Kennedy's father, Massachusetts Democrat Edward Kennedy, Domenici, and Mike Enzi, R-Wyo.
source: Associated Press

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