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Family calls for state mental health parity law after daughter dies of overdose

Samantha Huntley had been struggling with heroin addiction for several years. Last summer, she and her mother, Julie Oziah-Gideon, arranged for her to get treatment at the Amethyst Recovery Center in Port St. Lucie, Fla.

After a month, Huntley, 20, and her counselor called Oziah-Gideon to say the family's insurer, UnitedHealthcare, would not extend inpatient coverage beyond the 30 days already provided. Huntley and the counselor thought she should stay for another three to four weeks, but Oziah-Gideon couldn't afford the $10,000 out-of-pocket cost.

"She wanted it because she knew she needed help," Oziah-Gideon said. "Thirty days isn't long enough for any person who has an addiction to get their head straight."

So Huntley flew back to her parents' home in Springfield, Mo., on Aug. 31, where she planned to attend daily Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Alone in her bedroom three days later, she died of an overdose.

"I 100% believe she could still be alive with longer inpatient treatment," said Oziah-Gideon, who recently testified before the Missouri Legislature in support of a state parity bill. "The insurance supervisor told me I could file a form to try to get more coverage, but it would take months. But I didn't have time to keep fighting with insurance. My daughter needed treatment right away."

Refusal to extend inpatient coverage beyond 30 days could violate the federal law requiring health plans to provide coverage for behavioral care that's comparable to their coverage for medical care, said attorney D. Brian Hufford, a partner at Zuckerman Spaeder who focuses on parity law.

A UnitedHealthcare spokeswoman said there's no reference in the Huntley's case file suggesting the family was told there was a 30-day limit on residential treatment.

"Addiction is a terrible disease and we feel for the Huntley family in the loss of their daughter," said Maria Gordon Shydlo, UnitedHealthcare's communications director. "We do comply with the parity law."

Related story: "As families struggle to get behavioral health coverage, enforcement of parity laws lags"


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Harris Meyer is a senior reporter providing news and analysis on a broad range of healthcare topics. He served as managing editor of Modern Healthcare from 2013 to 2015. His more than three decades of journalism experience includes freelance reporting for Health Affairs, Kaiser Health News and other publications; law editor at the Daily Business Review in Miami; staff writer at the New Times alternative weekly in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; senior writer at Hospitals & Health Networks; national correspondent at American Medical News; and health unit researcher at WMAQ-TV News in Chicago. A graduate of Northwestern University, Meyer won the 2000 Gerald Loeb Award for Distinguished Business and Financial Journalism.

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