Politics & Government

Law expands mental health coverage

Private health insurance policies for individuals and small companies in Washington will now be required to offer coverage for mental health treatment equal to their medical benefits.

"Washington now has the strongest and the best mental health parity requirements in our nation," Gov. Chris Gregoire said as she signed the bill into law Friday.

Still, about two-thirds of Washington residents aren't covered by the new rules, because they receive their health insurance through the federal government or employers who self-insure.

The measure expands a mental health parity law passed in 2005 that required all private health insurance policies for large groups to provide equal coverage for medical and mental health treatment. Under the new measure, that requirement expands to companies with fewer than 50 employees and to individual policies.

It means, for example, that if your health plan allows unlimited doctor visits for colds and sprains, there can't be a cap on therapy sessions.

"We know mental health services work and that mental illness is as treatable as a physical illness," Gregoire said. "Mental health parity reduces costs to society and is cost effective overall."

During House debate on the bill, some lawmakers argued the measure would be an unfair and costly mandate for small businesses.

But Rep. Shay Schual-Berke, D-Normandy Park, said at the bill signing that the law would save society money in the long run, because mental illness "costs us in the homeless, emergency room and in our jails."

"To continue this arbitrary, archaic distinction between mental health and physical health is to stay in medieval times," Schual-Berke said. "It's time to come into the sunshine of the 21st century."

Schual-Berke said about 540,000 more people would be covered under the new law. The 2005 law covered about 1.5 million people, including state employees and those on the state's Basic Health Plan.

With this law and the 2005 measure, mental health parity now covers about 2 million of the state's 6 million people, said Randy Revelle, senior vice president of the Washington State Hospital Association.

The remaining 4 million are pe ople covered by federal programs, such as Medicare and Medicaid, work at self-insured companies, or have no insurance.

Some of those self-insured companies, such as Swedish Medical Center, Ben Bridge Jewelers, American Airlines, AT they can pre-empt the states," he said, adding that he wants to make sure federal law would "allow Washington to have the law Washington passed." House Bill 1460

Extends existing mental health parity requirements to individual and small group plans.