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Bailing out the Financial Markets May Hinge on Mental Health Parity

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Some say the Senate financial bailout bill is loaded with pork. But that may be the first time anybody's ever implied that ensuring "mental health parity" is pork.

The Wall Street Journal says that page 310 of the legislation points to the "Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008," an indication that passing the bailout bill will, as a result, also enact legislation that will force insurance companies to treat mental illnesses that same way as physical illnesses.

Though the Senate and the House of Representatives both passed the mental health bill last week, the bailout bill gives the legislation to chance to finally land on the President's desk to be signed into law -- provided the House of Representatives passes it, too, according to the Wall Street Journal.

It also signals the end of a decade-long wait for mental health advocates who have long tried to resurrect and, ultimately, push through Wellstone's legislation after it seemed to nearly disappear following his untimely death in 2002.

Many have started blogs, published the names and numbers of lawmakers and lobbied the public heavily to apply pressure on Congress to get the bill passed. The battle was left up to the states, as a result, to do something on their own - but few grabbed the torch and pushed the effort forward.

At one time, New Jersey was out in front of that effort, but lawmakers had a tough time sealing the deal. The General Assembly in Trenton last year was supposed to post a mental health parity bill in the lame duck session that could finally bring about long-needed equalization of insurance benefits.

It didn't happen, though medical professionals are hopeful that they can help resurrect it.

"Equalization of insurance health benefits to properly cover mental disorders including substance use disorders is right and just," said Joseph Napoli, past president of the New Jersey Psychiatric Association. "It is also cost-effective. The present inadequate coverage for these disorders is penny-wise and dollar-foolish."

People see the impact of these disorders on city streets. Many people who can't afford to get treatment self-medicate by using illegal drugs and alcohol. Their addictions cost them their lives, their families and their homes. Many end up homeless, or in jail.

Napoli is cautiously optimistic that the legislature will finally act. But mental health parity is not a new idea in New Jersey. And every time it's been given a chance to work, something gets in the way that defeats it - or weakens it.

"We can easily count the numerous ways that we all pay dearly because insurance companies refuse to cover these disorders at the same amounts and limits that apply to other disorders," Napoli said. "Insurance companies' costs are greater for general medical conditions complicated by mental disorders."

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