Texas Bill Would Equalize Coverage for Mental, Physical Illnesses

May 14, 2007

Health insurance plans that cover mental illnesses would have to provide benefits that are equal to those for other diseases under a bill approved by the Texas Senate.

Insurance companies frequently charge higher deductibles and co-payments for the treatment of mental illnesses and set lower caps on hospital stays or doctors visits, Sen. Rodney Ellis said.

“This is not only discriminatory but it sends a message that mental illnesses are less important than other illnesses,” said Ellis, a Democrat from Houston who sponsored the measure.

The debate was marked by a heated exchange between Ellis and Sen. Dan Patrick, a conservative freshman lawmaker who is a radio talk show host in Houston.

Patrick accused Ellis of being disingenuous for bringing the bill up for debate before they could finish negotiations over an amendment he wanted to add. Ellis responded by accusing Patrick of trying to gut his bill while pretending to support it.

The Senate ultimately sent the bill to the House by a 28-3 vote.

Under the legislation, plans that already cover mental illnesses would be barred from establishing co-payments or treatment limitations that are different from those for other medical or surgical conditions.

But plans that don’t already cover mental illnesses wouldn’t be required to add those benefits. Businesses with fewer than 51 employees also would be exempt.

The bill also would exempt plans that experience cost increases that exceed 2 percent in the first year and 1 percent in every subsequent year.

Patrick’s amendment would have allowed exemptions for companies that can prove that their costs would increase by that much.

But Ellis said companies in other states have tried to get out of providing the additional benefits and then have not been able to validate their projections.

“Don’t walk on this floor as though you are holier than thou and act like I’m disingenuous,” Ellis told the freshman lawmaker. “At some point senator, that just ticks me off.

“If you’re not for the bill, say you’re not for the bill. Vote it down. But don’t play games with me.”

Patrick, however, said he only wanted to make sure that people didn’t start receiving mental health treatment only to have to stop because the costs rose and their company dropped the coverage.

The argument on the floor was unusual for the normally sedate Senate, but it was not unprecedented. Democratic Sen. John Whitmire upbraided Patrick during a budget debate last month after the Republican criticized a senator who was recovering from a liver transplant.

The mental health parity bill is SB568.

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