Bill fights for more money for mental health

A bill now in the state Assembly would double the current minimum coverage insurance plans have to pony up for substance abuse and mental health services.

The mental health parity bill, called AB-252, comes after an out-of-session committee met to discuss the adequacy of current insurance requirements to address mental health and substance abuse issues, according to Rep. John W. Lehman (D-Racine), the bill's co-sponsor. It attempts to "modernize" the rates paid by insurance companies, which have not been adjusted since the 1980s, Lehman said.

"A lot of people in the state of Wisconsin feel that mental health issues should be treated the same way as other health issues," Lehman said. "I think it's an issue of fairness. The rate structure is out of date. This is 2005 — it's not the 1980s. It's not some controversial thing."

But the bill's chances of success are not rosy. It is nearly identical to a 2003 bill whose failure casts a pall over the 2005 version's chances of becoming a law.

"It will be a fight," Lehman said. "We'll do the best we can. We have a lot of people in the Assembly who have friends and relatives who are struggling with mental health, so I think there's growing sensitivity to this."

Most of the bill's support comes from mental health and substance abuse advocates.

"We all strongly believe in insurance parity for people with mental health illnesses," said Jill Fuller, a spokeswoman for Wisconsin Community Services, Inc., a mental health clinic. "It is a medical condition similar to all other medical conditions, and it should be treated as such by the insurance companies."

The bill is expected to face strong opposition from Republicans who oppose the added financial burden it will force upon businesses and insurance companies.

Even some would-be supporters are hesitant to support the bill. Shel Gross is the director of public policy for the Mental Health Association in Milwaukee County and a member of the Coalition for Fairness in Mental Health and Substance Abuse Insurance. He said that while the Coalition is in favor of increases in mental health coverage, it has not completely thrown its support behind the mental health parity bill, in part because of its slim chances of success.

"There's not a lot that looks different in this legislation, which begs the question, 'What could we expect to be different?'" Gross said. "These bills have never passed. They've always failed."

"It goes against our traditions," including not becoming involved in controversy, said a spokesman for Wisconsin Narcotics Anonymous, who requested anonymity for privacy reasons.

The bill is currently in the Assembly's Committee on Insurance, according to Lehman's office.

This article appeared in The Marquette Tribune on April 5 2005.