The House voted Wednesday to require equal health insurance coverage for mental and physical illnesses when policies cover both. The bill also includes a provision to crack down on physician-owned hospitals.
Opponents immediately said they would fight the physician-owned hospital proposal during House-Senate negotiations to come up with a final bill. The version the Senate passed last fall does not include the provision.
Congress has been debating for years whether doctors should be allowed to have ownership in the hospitals they send their patients to. The questions stems from so-called boutique hospitals that offer specialty services, such as cardiac care or orthopedic surgery, in urban areas.
Traditional hospitals have long complained that boutique hospitals cherry-pick the best patients and skimp on charity care. Supporters, meanwhile, contend they offer patients a choice and beef up competition, thereby improving the quality of care all around.
The 268-148 roll call was cheered by mental health advocates who have been fighting more than a decade for what has come to be called mental health parity. Supporters said the measure would help end the stigma of mental illness and create greater access for people needing mentalhealth and addiction treatment. Opponents warned it could drive up health care costs and force some employers to drop insurance coverage.
The Paul Wellstone Mental Health and Addiction Equity Act of 2007 was named for the late Minnesota Democratic senator who championed the issue for years and who was killed in a 2002 plane crash. The House vote sets the stage for talks with the Senate, which passed a narrower version of the bill last September with support from business and insurance groups.
The White House said it favors the Senate bill because it addresses the need to treat mental illnesses with the same urgency as physical illnesses but wouldn't significantly raise health care costs. The House bill was sponsored by Reps. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), who has battled depression, alcoholism and drug abuse, and Jim Ramstad, (R-Minn.), a recovering alcoholic who is Kennedy's Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor. The Senate bill was sponsored by Kennedy's father, Massachusetts Democrat Edward Kennedy, along with GOP Sens. Pete Domenici of New Mexico and Mike Enzi of Wyoming.
The House measure specifies that if a plan provides mental health benefits, it must cover mental illnesses and addiction disorders listed in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is used by mental health professionals. The Senate bill gives insurers more leeway on the types of mental disorders they would have to cover.
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