Mental health insurance bill enters House

Tuesday, February 10, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 10:16 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 14, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — Edward Duff says his mental health treatment cost him his job. He’s urging Missouri lawmakers to prevent that from happening to others.

Duff, who suffers from bipolar disorder, declared his condition during a health examination at the end of his probationary period — a disclosure Duff says led to his termination.

He worked in the hydraulic and pneumatic sales department of a Fortune 500 corporation.

“The health insurer said (to the employer) ‘If you put him on your plan we have to take the company out of our plan.’ This was a clear case of discrimination,” Duff said. “Lucky that I was a veteran and got my brain disorder and substance abuse treated at the VA hospital in Kansas City.”

After losing his job, Duff moved to Joplin and started his own construction company.

Duff told his story at a recent public hearing of the House Health Committee, which voted 12-1 Monday night to approve a bill that would require health insurance policies to provide the same levels of coverage for mental and physical illnesses — effectively prohibiting insurance discrimination between mental and physical illnesses.

Some insurance policies do not cover treatment for mental illnesses, or, if they do cover it, they have different co-payments or limitations on the treatment.

“We want diseases in all parts of the body to be treated equitably,” said Rep. Vicky Riback Wilson, D-Columbia, and a co-sponsor of the bill. “We should not have an artificial distinction between diseases of the brain and diseases in other parts of the body.”

At the public hearing, Ellie Saitta, director of Boone Hospital’s Behavioral Health Center, seconded Wilson’s opinion.

“Health care in general treats body, mind and spirit, and the mental-parity bill addresses that,” Saitta said. “So when we are breaking down the reimbursements into mental and physical health, we are not addressing the whole person.”

Duff, now a consumer advocate on mental health issues and a member of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, told the committee hearing that including rehabilitation programs for drugs and alcohol was a must — as the bill provides.

“If you don’t address one when you address the other, you are wasting your money,” he said.

But opponents of the bill warned that adding mental illnesses would raise health care costs, making it unaffordable for employers and individual buyers.

“Many employers will see this as robbing health insurance plans of flexibility and forcing companies and people to buy more health insurance than they can afford,” said Kelly Gillespie, a vice president with the Missouri Chamber of Commerce.

According to an official with the Missouri Association of Health Plans, an insurance industry trade group, the cost increase would range from 2 to 10 percent.

But the House committee heard conflicting predictions from the insurance industry as to the size of the increase.

“Our experience is about two dollars per member per month, about 1 percent of the premium,” said William Shoehigh, who testified on behalf of UnitedHealthcare.

He said UnitedHealthcare, a full profit-making entity, started offering dual coverage after the federal government brought about a mental health parity legislation in 1997.

Rep. Roy Holand, R-Springfield, said that the federal mental-parity bill covers self-insured companies, federal employees and those under Medicare. The Missouri bill, he said, goes beyond and covers the rest.

The issue of mental health parity has been before Missouri’s legislature for several years. It regularly has died after warnings that it would increase the cost of health insurance.

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