Aided by House speaker Dennis Hastert, insurance companies successfully have blocked legislation to make them provide equal coverage for mental and physical illnesses if their policies include both. President Bush endorsed the concept two years ago. Today, supporters of the bill are willing to settle for a scaled-back version they hope Congress will pass in 2004. The original legislation has 69 sponsors in the Senate and 246 sponsors in the House, clear majorities in both chambers. It was named for late Sen. Paul Wellstone, a Minnesota Democrat who championed the issue for years.
Hastert, however, has declined to schedule a House vote. In the Senate, Republicans blocked an attempt to win passage last fall on the one-year anniversary of Wellstone's death in a plane crash. "The bottom line is there is still enormous resistance from employers and health plans, and they've been able to turn to allies in the Senate and especially the House," said Andrew Sperling, a lobbyist for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. Companies such as BlueCross BlueShield Association, United Healthcare Corp., and WellPoint Health Networks have worked to defeat the legislation, in addition to the trade group America's Health Insurance Plans, lobbying reports show. Those groups combined to spend more than $13 million in lobbying last year on issues such as the mental health parity bill.
The bill would expand a 1996 law prohibiting health plans that offer mental health coverage from setting lower annual and lifetime spending limits for mental treatments than for physical ailments. The proposed legislation also would require equal treatment for copayments, deductibles, and limits on doctor visits. Karen Ignagni, chief executive of America's Health Insurance Plans, said employers worried that would drive up health care costs and might cause some to drop mental health coverage altogether. Hastert's office did not return phone messages, but the speaker has expressed concerns in the past that the bill would drive up premiums. In an April 2002 speech to mental health professionals in New Mexico, Bush said the health insurance system must treat mental illness like any other ailments. (AP)