Treatment for Mental Health and Addiction Finally Gets a Level Playing Field

Written By: Christine Walker

Since her days as First Lady of Georgia, Rosalynn Carter has dedicated her efforts and bully pulpit to issues concerning mental health. While in the White House she helped pass the Mental Health Services Act (MHSA) in 1980, which President Carter signed into law. Subsequent Administrations did little to actually implement the new law and much, if not all, of the provisions in the MSHA were left untouched.

Last Friday morning, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebilius announced that the White House would issue the final rules to the Mental Health And Addiction Parity Act of 2008. This action was the last step in full implementation of mental health and addiction parity, a full 33 years after The Carters' legislative victory. By issuing the final rules, both private and public sector entities now have the guidelines of what is expected of them as they offer insurance options to clients and employees.

For anyone living with mental health concerns or who knows someone who does, the importance of Friday's action is nothing short of miraculous. In November of 1963, President Kennedy's final bill signed into law was one which created community mental health centers across the country, allowing those living with mental illness to live outside of traditional institutions. While that bill became law, the funding never followed and the community support networks were never established. The Carters' efforts were among the first to create what President Kennedy had set out to do. Over three decades in the making, that vision has now been fulfilled.

So what exactly does ‘parity’ mean? Why is it so important and how does it affect the average person? Well, what parity means in relationship to health insurance plans, is that treatment for mental health cannot be more expensive than for other health conditions. Also, any prior authorizations once needed for seeking mental health treatment can be requested only if they are also required for non-mental health conditions. In short, mental health is on the same level as general health. As such, any plan that offers mental health coverage must price services for that as they would any other physical condition. In the past, insurers could require that consumers satisfy a deductible for mental health treatment that was greater than that of non-mental health treatment (like diabetes care, surgeries or follow-up care). Essentially, going forward, consumer health needs will not be put into one of two ‘buckets’: mental health and other. It is important to add that treatment for addiction falls under mental health, allowing access to consumers who are in need of such services.

Joining Secretary Sebilius for the announcement was Rosalynn Carter and Dave Wellstone, son of the late U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone (D-MN), after whom the 2008 Act was originally named.

All of this took place at the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia. I had the privilege of being there, as I was a guest of the 29th annual Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Symposium.

As an advocate for children's mental health, this conference represents the Super Bowl of thought leaders in the field. Throughout my adult life, I have been called to work toward legislative solutions to enhance people's lives.

Once my son Schuyler arrived and presented me with a focus to my efforts, I dug deeper into collaboration. Last year, I graduated from Northwestern University with a Masters in Public Policy and Administration (MPPA) in order to be dismissed less easily by those around the policy table. Having worked on Capitol Hill over 20 years ago, I have returned often to lobby members of Congress and their staffs about the areas of need within the mental health system.

This is my life's work, my calling, my reason for being on Earth.

Being with Mrs. Carter for two days humbles me and inspires me at the same time. Continuing her legacy on behalf of families throughout the world who love someone who lives with a mental health concern remains my true north. It is an awesome responsibility. Bring it on.

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