By Jenny Gold. Kaiser Health News
Tucked in remarks the president made Tuesday on the opioid epidemic was his announcement of a new task force on mental health parity — aimed at ensuring that people with mental illnesses and substance abuse problems don’t face discrimination in the health care system.
Despite a landmark 2008 law intended to do just that, enforcement has been paltry, and advocates say discrimination has continued.
“The goal of the task force is to essentially develop a set of tools, guidelines, mechanisms so that it’s actually enforced, that the concept is not just a phrase — an empty phrase,” President Obama said during a panel discussion at the National Prescription Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit in Atlanta, Georgia. “We’ve got to let the insurance carriers know that we’re serious about this.”
Advocates say parity has long been an “empty phrase” and it has taken the administration far too long to address the problem. They say insurers have been subverting the law in subtle ways, and the government has not aggressively acted to stop them.
“It’s better late than never, and you can’t not be grateful for the fact that we’re finally implementing a law that was passed nearly a decade ago,” said former congressman Patrick Kennedy, one of the authors of the parity law. “But it’s troubling that it’s occurring in the last year of the presidency, and that it took the administration this long to address a problem that’s been with us for many years.”
In a 2015 survey by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, an advocacy group for people with mental illness and their families, many patients said they were denied payment because treatment was deemed “not medically necessary” twice as often for mental health as for other medical conditions.
Only a handful of states, including California and New York, have been investigating whether insurers are complying with the parity law. Meanwhile, the federal government has taken few if any public enforcement actions, as Kaiser Health News reported last year.
For years, Kennedy has been traveling the country speaking about the lack of enforcement of the federal mental health parity law he helped create. One problem, he has said repeatedly, is that the administration has been hesitant to enforce a law against insurers, who were a key partner in implementing the Affordable Care Act.
“Even this administration, which is pro-consumer and liberal, has a tough time doing anything but dancing around issues of enforcing the law because they’re afraid to step on the insurers’ toes,” Kennedy said.
Tuesday’s announcement, he said, was also meager. “If the administration really wanted to be front and center on this they could have done it at the White House at a summit that would have gotten all kind of attention.”
Instead, he said, it was buried in an announcement of new programs and funding for opioid addiction. Also announced Tuesday were the final parity rules for patients with coverage under Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).
Despite the complaints of advocates and patients, insurers argue they have long been complying with parity.
“Our industry has long supported mental health parity and implementation of those requirements so that consumers have access to care when they need it,” Clare Krusing, a spokesperson for America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry’s main trade group, said in a written statement.
For more information, go to khn.org