Lawmakers and advocates fight for mental health parity

Lawmakers and mental health advocates said Wednesday that the U.S. has a long way to go before mental and physical health are treated on an even keel.

They called on Congress to pass several pending bills and on federal regulators to implement the new healthcare reform law with an eye towards mental health parity. The comments came during a policy forum sponsored by AstraZeneca and hosted by The Hill.

Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), a first-term congressman who helped pass a mental health parity law in Albany, said there were "four keys to a successful implementation of healthcare reform for the mentally ill and for people with serious addiction disorders":

- The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services "must mount a vigorous outreach and enrollment program";

- Regulators must ensure parity in state exchanges and Medicaid and quickly issue guidance regarding parity in Medicare managed care plans;

- Intensive community based services and residential addiction services should be included in the mandatory minimum benefits package offered through the new state exchanges;

- Community mental health centers must be part of every medical home funded via the law's Health Home State Option.

Tonko also raised the issue of Medicare reimbursement cuts to psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers, and with state budget cuts for mental health programs.

Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), a child psychologist, pressed for passage of legislation that would extend federal health information technology incentives to behavioral health services. The legislation, introduced by Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), would make behavioral and mental health providers eligible for federal grants to acquire electronic health records that are interoperable, integrated, intelligent and easy to use.

But bills improving access to mental health services "only matter if we make sure we integrate care together," Murphy said. "Mental health services are not stand-alone and that is something we need to continue to educate the community around."

Murphy also said his bill extending federal medical liability protections to volunteers at community health centers might come up for a vote Wednesday.

Linda Rosenberg, the president and CEO of the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare, also pressed for passage of Kennedy's bill and for "vigilance in ensuring that the Affordable Care Act’s Health Home State Option meets the needs of people with serious mental illness."

She also requested support for the Community Mental Health and Addiction Safety Net Equity Act, which would replace community mental health centers with Federally Qualified Behavioral Health Centers - entities designed to serve individuals with serious mental illnesses and addiction disorders. The bill, introduced by Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.), has six co-sponsors.