Mental health coverage expands in state

Photo by Kathryn Crandall.

Connecticut residents with private insurance will soon find their plans offering coverage for mental health and substance abuse comparable to medical coverage, with parity extending to features including co-pays, deductibles, and length of treatment.

Amidst the botched rollout of healthcare reform, a less publicized announcement from the Obama administration last Friday guarantees parity in mental health and substance abuse coverage across the nation. The federal expansion is the final step in realizing the promises of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008. This strengthening of mental health coverage was one of the 23 executive actions announced by Obama after the Newtown shootings last December.

“The [regulations] are a major step forward towards ensuring that people suffering from mental illnesses get the treatments that they need,” said John Krystal MD ’84, chief of psychiatry at Yale-New Haven Hospital.

With the changes, those with mental health disorders will be able to access services for as long as needed, instead of facing arbitrary limits on the number of psychiatric visits allowed through insurance, said Kate Mattias, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Connecticut. She added that outpatient services for mental health treatment will now be comparable to those offered for medical treatment.

While the changes look promising on paper, the effect for Connecticut residents remains to be seen, said Daniela Giordano, NAMI Connecticut’s public policy director for adults, state and national matters. In particular, only time will tell if the quantitative changes like co-pays, deductibles and length of treatment translate to a qualitative improvement in care.

While the Act does not extend to Medicaid recipients, Connecticut offers better mental health coverage through Medicaid than does any other state, said Sheila Amdur, president of Connecticut Community Providers Association, an organization that represents over 100 local mental health providers. In the state, Medicaid offers services that complement primary treatment — such as case management — that are not featured on private insurance plans, said Sara Frankel, public policy director for children, youth and young adults with NAMI Connecticut.

“The irony is that it’s probably the one area where state-supported services exceed what is generally available to others,” said Robert Killian, a Hartford-based probate judge who serves clients resisting treatment for mental health.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, in any given year, around 25 percent of Americans over 18 struggle with mental illness.

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