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Mental health coverage gets equal footing

 (The Spokesman-Review)
(The Spokesman-Review)
Rebecca Cook Associated Press

OLYMPIA – Enacting the most significant health care policy change of her few months in office, Gov. Christine Gregoire has signed a bill that will require insurers to treat mental illness the same as physical illness.

“This truly represents a great leap forward in the health of Washingtonians,” Gregoire said Wednesday as she signed the bill into law. “When we fail to treat mental illnesses in the same way we treat illnesses of the body, it costs everybody.”

Supporters of the measure estimate the new law will help about 900,000 Washington residents whose health insurance plans don’t cover mental illness, or cover it at a lower level than physical illness.

The law requires health insurers to treat mind and body the same.

For example, if the co-payment for an arthritis or blood pressure drug is $10, the co-payment for antidepressants will have to be $10. Deductibles, out-of-pocket maximums and visit limits must be the same for mental and physical conditions.

“It can make a huge difference if people have access to treatment,” said Olympia lobbyist Randy Revelle.

He should know. A former King County councilman and county executive, he was diagnosed with manic depression in 1977.

At the time, his insurance wouldn’t cover hospitalization for the psychotic episodes he was suffering – so his doctor got him admitted for his bad back, which the health plan covered.

Revelle considers himself lucky. He controls his illness with lithium, which costs him about $20 a month.

About a third of mentally ill people never get any kind of treatment.

“It took me two months to get over my mental illness, and it took four years to get over the stigma,” Revelle said.

The parity law, he said, “sends a strong blow against the discrimination against the mentally ill.”

The bill passed with strong majorities in the House and Senate, seven years after it was first introduced.

Opponents raised questions about the cost, but supporters say other states’ experiences have answered those questions. At least 33 states have some sort of mental health parity law.

Bill sponsor Rep. Shay Schual-Berke, D-Normandy Park, noted that none of the nine states with full parity laws has backed off from them.

A PricewaterhouseCoopers analysis last year said enacting the law in Washington state would increase premiums by less than half a percent.

Gregoire said mental health parity will cost businesses far less than untreated mental illness costs now in absenteeism, lost productivity, and claims for disability and unemployment.

One of the people who testified in favor of the bill was Jo-Anne Wilson, a teacher who recently stabilized her bipolar disorder after a 12-year struggle during which she had to pay for most of her treatment out-of-pocket.

She attended the bill signing with her brother, House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle.

“From a financial standpoint, it will be a tremendous asset,” she said.

“And there’s just the pride that comes with being acknowledged … it’s a personal strength kind of thing.”

The law will be phased in over four years, starting in 2006.

It covers people in state-regulated health insurance plans, excluding people in the individual insurance market and small-group insurance plans for businesses with less than 50 employees.

Gregoire also signed a bill to extend a law that expired at the end of last year.

The law allows convicted felons to request DNA testing that could exonerate them and requires law enforcement agencies to preserve DNA evidence for future testing.

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