Pete Domenici, a former U.S. senator from New Mexico, is a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center. Gordon H. Smith, a former U.S. senator from Oregon, is president and chief executive of the National Association of Broadcasters.
Every day across the United States, families struggle with the challenges of mental illness or substance abuse. The 68 million Americans with these issues include people of all income levels, all races and all political affiliations. Mental illness does not discriminate.
Often, the difference between being overwhelmed as a family or meeting the challenges head-on and making progress against the illness can be just one factor: access to meaningful health insurance. Even those who think they have quality health coverage can be overwhelmed when a loved one receives a diagnosis of mental illness or is a substance abuser. They discover that their health insurance does not cover needed services or that the out-of-pocket expenses are prohibitive and significantly more than what is charged for physical ailments.
The spotlight's shining on the wrong issue in health care.
In 2008, Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act. This law, which garnered bipartisan support, requires that large group health plans and Medicaid managed-care plans provide coverage for mental or substance-use disorders on par with the coverage offered for physical ailments. But when any law is passed, the federal government must implement and enforce it to make its benefits and provisions a reality.
President Obama voted for the bill as a U.S. senator, and all indications are that he remains supportive. Yet regulatory action has stalled since 2010. The final rule that would provide clarity to the millions who have a mental illness or substance-use disorder, and to their employers, has not been issued. This has created uncertainty and confusion for employers over what they must cover and when parity applies.
For example, many health insurance plans still refuse to cover lifesaving treatment for eating disorders. Others create discriminatory barriers to care, such as imposing stricter prior-authorization requirements for mental health and addiction treatment than for medical benefits. Sadly, as underscored in a recent report by the assistant secretary for planning and evaluation at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, levels of care for evidence-based behavioral treatments, such as residential psychiatric services for children, are being eliminated because of uncertainty about what is required.
The most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health, published last year, found that fewer than half of the 45.9 million adults with a mental illness receive treatment or counseling and that only 10 percent of the more than 23 million people who need help for a substance-use problem received any specialized treatment in 2010. Even more troubling is the fact that people with either disease have shorter life expectancies than most Americans; a 2006 study put the difference at 25 years.
The Obama administration should issue its final regulations to implement the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act. Doing so would allow employers to plan with certainty and stability — and would let families know that help will be there when they need it.