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Bill would regulate mental health insurance

February 17, 2003
By: Melissa Maynard
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - If you were looking for a slang term to refer to someone who is battling cancer or heart disease, you'd be at a loss. No such terms exist in English.

But you'd have much better luck if you were hoping to insult a patient suffering from mental illness, said Jay Meyer, associate professor of clinical psychiatry at Washington University.

"Do you know any slang terms for diabetes or cancer patients? That's why there's a lack of parity," Meyer said. "Do we continue to discriminate against ten percent of our population?"

That's why Rep. Vicky Riback Wilson, D-Columbia, is co-sponsoring a bill that would require health insurers to treat mental health care in the same way they treat other illnesses. Thirty states have enacted similar legislation.

The bill is one of a number of measures before the legislature that would place minimum requirements on health insurers for certain illnesses.

But some legislators say they fear such requirements would contribute to rising health care costs.

"As long as minimum requirements continue to increase, we're going to price people out of the market," said Rep. Bryan Pratt, R-Jackson County. "And we'd be doing a disservice to people with lower incomes."

But Wilson said this bill is different from other requirements on health insurers.

"This isn't a mandate; it's an issue of equity," Wilson said."It says that if you're treating health care, treat the entire body."

Wilson said other states' experiences show that such bills would only increase health insurance costs by one percent. She said states with similar legislation have found that over time this increase is offset by savings in other areas.

However, according to the Health Insurance Association of America, these results could be attributed to other factors.

A statement released by the HIAA said that while mental health care is important, the effect of mandating coverage would be to increase the cost of insurance for everyone. This could mean higher numbers of uninsured Americans. In states with legislation mandating equal mental health coverage, the likelihood that any given citizen will be uninsured increases by six percent, the HIAA said.

According to Diane McFarland, the director of the Department of Human Resources within the Department of Mental Health, only one third of people with diagnosable mental disorders seek treatment because of the stigma and cost associated with disorders.

Former Rep. Tim Harlan, representing the Columbia branch of the National Alliance of the Mentally Ill, testified in favor of the bill at a recent House Health Care Policy Committee hearing.

Harlan said continuing with the current system would be a greater burden on the state in the long run.

"The cost factor is to say to people, 'No, we're not going to treat you, we're not going to make it part of your overall health coverage. We will hope that the state picks that up,'" Harlan said.