Health plans covering 9 million federal employees and family members will be required to offer the same insurance coverage for mental illnesses and substance abuse problems as they do for physical disorders under a series of new mental health initiatives that the Clinton administration will announce today.
The initiatives, to be unveiled at a White House mental health conference, also include measures to improve treatment of the mentally ill, bolster research into mental disorders and increase mental patients' access to Medicaid.
Other measures are aimed at addressing the mental health needs of children, the elderly, the homeless, criminals, crime victims, military combat veterans and Native Americans.
"To improve the health of our nation, we must ensure that our mental health is taken as seriously as our physical health," said Tipper Gore, President Clinton's adviser on mental health care and chairwoman of today's conference.
Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton plan to participate in the conference at Howard University along with Tipper Gore and her husband, Vice President Gore, White House officials said. Nine department and agency heads and two dozen members of Congress also will attend, officials said.
According to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, a 208,000-member advocacy group for people with mental illnesses, one in four American families is affected by a mental health problem, from mild anxiety or depression to severe schizophrenia or manic-depressive disorder.
"It's a problem of greater size and scope than most people realize," said Laurie Flynn, director of the alliance. "But it hasn't been a subject that people are comfortable talking about."
Tipper Gore's interest in the issue reflects her experiences with a mother who suffered severe depression, which Gore has said contributed to the breakup of her parents' marriage when she was a child. She also said recently that she was treated for depression after her son was seriously injured in a 1989 car crash.
The centerpiece of the initiatives to be unveiled today is a requirement for "full parity" in coverage of mental health and substance abuse problems by the 285 health insurers that participate in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Plan, the nation's largest private insurance program. As a condition for participating in the plan, the insurers will no longer be allowed to limit coverage of these disorders in ways that do not apply to physical illnesses.
In addition, the administration will launch a campaign to inform Americans of their rights under an existing law, the Mental Health Parity Act of 1996, and is urging action on bills in the House and Senate that would expand the parity provisions.
The parity measures have come under fire from critics who fear they would drive up health-insurance premiums and add hundreds of thousands of people to the ranks of the uninsured. The White House insists that any cost increases would be minimal.
The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill welcomed Clinton's parity requirement but said further action was needed. It urged him in a letter to extend the requirement to "all private contractors who do business with the federal government."
Other initiatives cited by the White House include:
A $7.3 million study by the National Institute of Mental Health to collect information on mental illness and treatments nationwide.
An effort to encourage states to offer more coordinated Medicaid services to people with mental illnesses.
A program to help secure treatment for the 5 million Americans over 65 who suffer from some form of depression.
An outreach program, including a $4.8 million study, aimed at helping homeless Americans with mental illnesses.
An interagency partnership to address the mental health needs of victims of violent crimes, including terrorism.
The development of new strategies to deal with mental illness in the criminal justice system.
A plan for a more comprehensive approach in the military to treat and prevent combat stress, which is estimated to affect 30 percent of those who have spent time in war zones.
A five-year, $5 million campaign to address the needs of the estimated 10 percent of American children who have behavioral or mental health problems.
A $5 million program to improve the mental health of young Native Americans, who have suicide rates three times higher than the rest of the U.S. population in the same age group.