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New parity law offers more help for mental health care

The U.S. federal government Jan 29 implemented a law requiring that health insurance plans cover mental and physical illnesses to the same extent, medscape reported.

The Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 prohibits health insurance providers from restricting patients' access to mental health and substance use disorders by limiting benefits and imposing higher patients' out of pocket costs.

The rules were jointly issued by the Department of Labor, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Treasury.

The Mental Health Parity Act of 1996 already requires the parity in insurance benefits for mental and physical illnesses, but does not require the same for substance use disorders.

The new law will take effect for plan years beginning on or after July 1, 2010, according to Medscape Today, and apply to group coverages offered by employers with 50 or more employees whose health care plans offer mental health or substance use disorder benefits.

Mental health care often results in high costs for the patients.  A study reported in the Dec 2009 issue of Pediatrics found that families with children who need mental health care experienced a higher financial burden and greater loss of productivity.

Busch SH and Barry CL at Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut examined data from the 2005 - 2006 National Survey of Children with Special Health Care needs to see how the current health insurance practice affects both families with no special health care needs and those with special health care needs.

All children involved in the study were at the age of 6 to 17 years.  Busch and Barry compared 4918 children with mental health care needs with three groups of children, 12346 children with no special health care needs, 16250 children with no mental health care needs, and 7902 children with no mental health care need, but a need for other specialty services.

The researchers considered study outcomes across four domains, that is, financial l burden, health plan experiences, labor-market and time effects, and parent experience with services.

The families of children with mental health care needs faced significantly greater financial barriers, had more negative health plan experience, and were more likely to reduce their labor market participating in order to care for their children than other families.

The authors concluded families with privately insured children who need mental health care face a greater burden than other families in caring for their children.  They said policies are needed to meet the need of these families for affordable, high-quality care.

By Jimmy Downs