Threat to Vt mental health law averted

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(Host) In Washington, the Senate has given its approval to a mental health parity law. There were strong concerns in Vermont that the initial draft of the bill would have watered down key parts of the state’s existing parity law but these provisions were eliminated from the final version.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel) In 1997, the Vermont Legislature passed what’s considered to be the strongest mental health parity law in the country. It requires all health insurers to offer equal benefits for mental and physical conditions in their policies.

Mental health advocates in Vermont were extremely concerned about the original version of the new U.S. Senate bill because the legislation prohibited individual states from enacting stronger standards than those adopted by the federal government. It’s a provision that would have forced Vermont to scale back its law.

Senator Bernie Sanders is a member of the Senate Health committee – the panel that drafted the bill. While he supports national mental health parity legislation, he said the pre-emption provision was unacceptable:

(Sanders) "Vermont is leading the nation in mental health parity and we’re not going to see those standards diluted in our state. We’re doing a good job and we managed to convince the chairman and other members of the committee to make the changes so that Vermont’s very strong legislation cannot be pre-empted. And in fact the rest of the country can move forward and try to catch up to where Vermont is rather than visa versa."

(Kinzel) Ken Libertoff is the director of the Vermont Association for Mental Health.

He says he’s very pleased that the pre-emption provision was removed from the bill but Libertoff also has some strong concerns about the basic approach taken in the Senate plan.

While Vermont’s law requires health insurance companies doing business in the state to include mental health benefits in all policies, that’s not the case in some other states.

Libertoff is concerned that the Senate bill applies only to consumers in these states who specifically have mental health coverage – he says it does nothing for individuals who don’t:

(Libertoff) "The concern that we had that the federal proposal in the Senate might pre-empt and override Vermont’s bill has been removed…However we have analyzed the Senate bill and still believe that it is a bill that is short of the mark. It is not nearly up to a standard that we would feel satisfied with at this point."

(Kinzel) Libertoff says Vermont’s 10-year experience with a mental health parity law has been a great success:

(Libertoff ) "There is no question that in 1997 no matter what insurance you purchased you were faced with a $10,000 lifetime limit for mental health and substance abuse care. Ten thousand dollars for any health care condition is irresponsible and untenable. We have changed a lot of the conversation we have moved much closer to equity."

(Kinzel) The mental health parity legislation will now be considered by the U.S. House. Libertoff says the draft bill in the House also protects Vermont’s law and provides stronger benefits than the Senate legislation.

For VPR News I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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