WASHINGTON — The Senate passed an amendment Tuesday that would require insurers that cover mental health conditions to treat them as they would any other medical problem.
Though the legislation does not require companies to offer mental health coverage as part of employee health benefits, companies that do must provide the same level of coverage for mental health as they do for physical health, from routine checkups to major surgery.
"This is an issue of civil rights!" shouted Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn. "End the discrimination."
"Mental illnesses are diseases of the brain, like any other body part," said Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., who sponsored the legislation with Wellstone. "They should be given fairer treatment in terms of health care coverage."
Insurers would have to charge the same co-payments and deductibles for either type of condition, whether influenza or schizophrenia.
The legislation was attached to an appropriations bill and passed on a voice vote. It expands a 1996 law that expires this year. That law mandates equal footing only for annual and lifetime benefits provided patients — not hospital stays or doctor visits.
Only one senator, Texas Republican Phil Gramm, spoke out against the new legislation. He noted that the Congressional Budget Office has estimated the bill would cost private insurers $23 billion over five years — or a 1 percent increase in insurance premiums.
Paul Dennett, vice president for health policy at the American Benefits Council, which primarily represents Fortune 500 companies that provide health and retirement benefits, said his group would seek to get the House version passed instead. The House calls for only an extension of the 1996 law.
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