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Mental, physical health to be covered equally

Insurers will be mandated to cover mental and physical health equally in the largest expansion of mental health coverage in a decade.
Marlaina Dreher, Brandon Dreher
Marlaina Dreher, left, plays with her 5-year-old son Brandon after he fed himself during a session in the pediatric feeding disorder program at the Marcus Autism Center, Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013, in Atlanta.

Mental health and addiction will finally be granted the same coverage guarantee as physical ailments, the Obama administration announced on Friday.

The new rule will expand and protect behavioral health benefits for more than 62 million Americans who either currently have insurance--but no access to mental health coverage--or aren't enrolled in plans, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius said.

"More of our friends, our neighbors, and family members will be able to join the tens of millions of Americans with behavioral health conditions who lead productive lives," Sebelius said during a press conference call on Friday morning.

The health care system in this country has "discriminated" against Americans with behavioral problems for "way too long," she added.

The White House has struggled with implementing the parity law for the past five years due to a lack of concrete regulations. The Obama administration hopes the implementations will curb recent violent acts such as the mass shootings in Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn. President Obama has been committed to changing the view insurers and citizens have of mental health since the shooting last December at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Earlier this year he outlined 23 executive actions on gun violence, including pushing to finalize mental-health-parity regulations. The administration has now completed or made progress on each goal.

"We believe that the event [in Newtown] highlighted how much untreated mental illness there is in this country," Sarah Bianchi, deputy assistant to the president and director of economic and domestic policy for the Office of the Vice President, said Friday during the call.

The rule, along with the Affordable Care Act of 2010 and Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 (MHPAEA), closes gaps in insurance plans. The ACA expands coverage for screening and behavioral assessments without co-pays or out-of-pocket fees. It also prevents insurance companies from denying coverage or charging more money for pre-existing conditions. Additionally, young Americans are allowed to remain on their parents’ plans until age 26.

The MHPAEA ensures mental health treatment and finances are no more restrictive than limitations for physical benefits.

Previously 60% of Americans with mental health conditions and 9 in 10 individuals with substance abuse disorders didn’t receive the care they needed.

“We need to move past the idea that when we’re talking about mental health, we’re talking about somebody else,” Sebelius said on Friday during a speech at the Carter Center in Atlanta where she first announced the parity rule.

Former first lady Rosalynn Carter, who introduced Sebelius on Friday at the center, helped round up support for the passage of the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980.

"We know so much more today and yet the problems are still very much the same with one exception: recovery,” Carter previously said.

Eighty-five percent of Americans have insurance and 15% either don’t have plans or purchase one on their own.

Sebelius recently testified in front of the Senate, defending Obamacare and the ACA.

"All of us have a role to play to make this happen,” she said Friday. “We have to change hearts in order to treat minds.”