The health provisions and drug pricing reform originally included in Build Back Better remain in jeopardy after Senator Joe Manchin said he wouldn’t vote for the bill. With that endless debate on hold, lawmakers have turned their attention to another health issue that has similarly gone too long without any true resolution: the enforcement of mental health parity laws, which make it easier for patients to get mental health and addiction care.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers are hoping to draft a bill in the months ahead that could hold insurers who violate these laws to account.
In recent years, rates of mental illness like anxiety and depression have risen in the U.S. And since the start of the pandemic, those rates have skyrocketed in tandem with an increase in opioid addiction and overdose deaths, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data released in November. The long-term effects of the pandemic, meanwhile, could lead to a mental health crisis in coming years — and with it, increased demand for mental health services, psychiatrists, therapists and improved access.
The issue has become so overwhelming that U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued a rare public advisory late last year calling on the country to recognize the mental health crisis, particularly among young people.
But while awareness and destigmatization of mental illness has grown substantially in recent years, and the emergence of telehealth improved access to mental health treatment, barriers still exist. One of those is the routine practice among some insurers of denying mental health claims and refusing to pay for services.
At times, these organizations violate the law by doing so. The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (MHPAEA), enacted in 2008, requires insurers to cover mental health conditions just as they do medical conditions. But a recent report from the U.S. Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Treasury found that many health insurers are failing to provide parity in mental health and substance abuse benefits for patients they cover.
“The report’s findings clearly indicate that health plans and insurance companies are falling short of providing parity in mental health and substance-use disorder benefits, at a time when those benefits are needed like never before,” U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh said in a statement.
As a result, lawmakers have proposed a few different pieces of legislation that could be spun into a larger mental health package before the year is out. The first proposal involves giving states the ability to increase enforcement against insurers, while the second would allow the Labor Department to financially penalize insurers that don’t obey mental health parity laws.
Though it’s unclear what those proposals will ultimately look like — or what package they may be included in — the push is part of a larger recognition that improved access to mental health care is crucial.
“Health plans and insurance companies are falling short of providing access to the treatment many working families need,” U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra said in a statement. “We are committed to working with our federal partners to change this and hold health plans and insurance companies accountable for delivering more comprehensive care.”