House Republicans Move To Oppose Mental Health Parity Bill
Opposition to a Senate-passed measure ( S 543) that would expand the 1996 mental health parity law "is building" and could "hold up" negotiations on the fiscal year 2002 Labor-HHS appropriations bill (HR 3061), CongressDaily reports. The Senate attached the parity measure as an amendment to the FY 2002 Labor-HHS spending bill, but a number of House GOP lawmakers "complained" that the legislation "goes well beyond the more limited" 1996 law, which expired in September (Rovner, CongressDaily, 11/29). The legislation, sponsored by Sens. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) and Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), would require insurers that provide mental health coverage to offer benefits at the same level as the benefits provided for physical health coverage. In addition, the legislation would ban limits on hospital stays and physician visits for mental health treatment that exceed those imposed for physical health visits and would require insurers to charge the same copayments and deductibles for mental and physical health services. The bill would affect group health plans sponsored by employers with more than 50 employees (Kaiser Daily Health Policy Report, 11/6). Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), chair of the House Appropriations Labor-HHS subcommittee, said, "I have letters from three authorizing chairmen opposing" the legislation, "and [House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.)] is telling me he's opposing it too." House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Billy Tauzin (R-La.) said in a letter to House appropriators, "During this time of economic uncertainty, we believe it would be inappropriate to place additional burdens on employees that may increase the costs of Americans' health insurance premiums" (Rovner, CongressDaily/AM, 11/30).
Hard 'Fight' Ahead
The legislation also faces a "fight" from employers and health insurers. The Health Benefits Coalition, an employer-based health care group, sent a letter to House appropriators earlier this month that said that the bill would "impose the most restrictive requirements on benefits voluntarily offered by an employer to their workers ever mandated by Congress" at a time when employers face a "faltering economy and double-digit increases in health care costs" (CongressDaily, 11/29). Joe Luchok, a spokesperson for the Health Insurance Association of America, added that "it would be hard to define what gets covered" under the bill. He said that the bill would result in increased health insurance premiums and would cost employers $23 billion over the next five years. According to a Congressional Budget Office report, the legislation would raise health insurance premiums by 0.9% (Hotakainen, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, 11/30). Supporters of the legislation "rallied behind their cause" at a Nov. 29 press conference outside the Capitol (CongressDaily, 11/29). Several "big names," including CBS "60 Minutes" co-anchor Mike Wallace and former first lady Rosalynn Carter, appeared at the event (Minneapolis Star-Tribune, 11/30). Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Labor-HHS subcommittee, and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chair of the subcommittee, also appeared at the event and vowed to "keep the language" on mental health parity in the final FY 2002 Labor-HHS appropriations bill (CongressDaily, 11/29).