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Lawmakers Push Insurers on Mental Health Access

By Joe DiSipio - 09/09/16 01:55 PM EDT

Lawmakers at a hearing Friday focused their attention on boosting mental health access for patients.

Members of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health pushed for insurers to do more to ensure parity so that those with mental health or substance abuse issues don't face tougher obstacles to receiving care as those with other medical conditions.

“Parity, the simple idea that substance use disorder and heart disease should be treated the same, is the law. That’s not what is debated,” said Rep. Joseph Kennedy (D-Mass.) said in an opening statement.

Since the passage of the Mental Health Parity Act of 1996, Congress has pressed to improve upon making mental health and substance use treatment as accessible as other treatments.

“But without proper enforcement and transparency, the law is little more than words," Kennedy said. “And that lack of enforcement and transparency has devastating consequences.”

Lawmakers heard from witnesses who said there was still work to do.

Matthew Selig, executive director of Health Law Advocates, discussed existing gaps in that current law that result in care denials he called “life-threatening and disruptive.”

Kennedy called Friday's hearing to explore potential legislative action.

Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) expressed concerns about access but also questioned whether new federal rules would "burden" the mental health care system.

Pamela Greenberg, the president of the Association for Behavioral Health and Wellness, said more needs to be done to disclose the different options available to patients who need care.

“There needs to be a more concise option for consumers who want to understand how their health plan has implemented parity without burying them with hundreds of documents,” she said.

Kennedy called for a central information portal, where patients can learn about options and understand their rights when seeking mental healthcare.

But Greenberg expressed caution over whether there was a need for more legislation.

“I don’t know if it has to be legislative, I know the regulators are working to get there,” she said.

The hearing also comes amid a renewed push on Capitol Hill to pass mental health reform legislation.

Kennedy told reporters after the hearing that he saw a path for bipartisan action on the issue.

“We have had a number of conversations with our Republican colleagues. I think one of the important pieces of this hearing was a recognition, through witnesses, again bipartisan that this is an important part of reform to the mental health system,” he said.

In July, the House passed the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act after a lengthy delay. The bill, which Republicans pushed as their response to a slew of recent mass shootings, passed after Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) stripped a number of contentious measures.

The bill is intended to provide better oversight and management of federal mental health programs and provide new grants. Democrats, though, said the bill is only a first step and are pushing for more funding on mental health issues.

Pressure is building on the Senate to also act quickly on mental health. But lawmakers in the upper chamber are still struggling to reach a deal.

 

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