A little-publicized amendment has widespread effects on Alabama employee benefit plans.
The Mental Health Parity Act, or MHPA was recently extended through December 31, 2007, under a law signed by the president. The original MHPA bill was signed into law in 1996. It included a “sunset clause” that meant the bill expired on September 31, 2001. Since then, the law has been amended 5 times to extend the expiration date.
Under the mental health parity act, any group health insurance plan offered to employees in the nation must cover mental health treatments just as it does any other type of treatment, including medical treatments. Covered mental health treatments usually include visits to a licensed therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist.
Under the MHPA, most plans also cover periods in rehab for drug or alcohol dependency. Stays in mental hospitals or the mental health wing of a hospital for ailments as diverse as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and schizophrenia are also covered.
Prior to the enactment of MHPA legislation, many group health insurance plans set a generous limit on medical treatment, of $200,000 per year or more. However, mental health plans were often given short shrift, with annual limits as low as $2,000 to $4,000. Under the current law, this is illegal. Any group health insurance plan must fund mental health treatments just as they do other medical treatments, including surgery.
Essentially, the MHPA requires parity between treatment levels for mental health and physical ailments. This reflects the changing attitude towards mental health in the US over the past 25 years. With millions of Americans on anti-depressants, seeking care for a mental problem doesn’t carry the stigma that it did in the past.
In the past, many workers who sought help for a problem, including alcohol or drug treatment, were caught in a bind. Often, their health insurance would pay $200,000 for a heart bypass operation, but not $20,000 for a month-long stay in rehab. Today, the situation is different, thanks to the MHPA.