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Federal bill would insure mental-health treatment 

If you break your leg, you can usually count on your health insurance to pay for the treatment. But if you have depression or another mental-health problem, you often have to foot the bills for medication and therapy yourself. Under federal law, private insurers are not required to cover mental-health costs.

But now there is at least some hope that Congress will change that situation. A Congressional hearing on mental-health coverage will take place March 12 in Green Tree. The event will be hosted by U.S. Reps. Tim Murphy (R-Upper St. Clair), Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) and Jim Ramstad (R-MN). Both Kennedy and Ramstad have publicly acknowledged seeking treatment for their addictions.

Speakers at Congressional hearings are pre-selected, but mental-health advocates are encouraging those who support the legislation to attend and submit written testimony.

"The physical presence of people is meaningful," says Rachel Freund, outreach and public-education coordinator of the Mental Health Association of Allegheny County. "The idea of the hearing is to get a groundswell of support that would help move the legislation."

"What Congress is looking for is to highlight the lack of medical coverage" for mental health, says Deb Shoemaker, executive director of the Pennsylvania Psychiatric Society. "It is unfair and it is essentially discriminating against people with mental illness."

And that's a lot of people: As many as 18 million Americans have been diagnosed with depression alone. Advocates have pushed for years for comparable, equitable coverage of mental-health care ever since the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-MN) sponsored the Mental Health and Addiction Treatment Act in 2002.

Currently, there are two versions of the legislation, one in the House and the other in the Senate. If passed, both will require private insurers to cover mental illness and drug addiction in much the same way they cover physical ailments. Insurance companies would have to foot the bill for psychiatric visits, medication, hospital stays and outpatient treatment. (Those who qualify for Medicaid already receive mental-health care.)

Opponents to expanding coverage cite cost concerns, but Shoemaker says the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the coverage would increase health insurance costs an average of 0.9 percent, or roughly $23 billion a year. More and more insurers are offering the coverage voluntarily.

In Pennsylvania, state law requires employers of 50 or more people to cover some hospital stays and outpatient care for mental illness.

If the federal legislation gets passed, Shoemaker says, "There will be equal-playing field for coverage."

The hearing will run from 9:30 to noon on March 12 at the Green Tree Municipal Building, 10 W. Manilla Ave. For more information on the proposed legislation, see www.equitycampaign.net

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