The Obama administration on Friday will complete a generation-long effort to require insurers to cover care for mental health and addiction just like physical illnesses when it issues long-awaited regulations defining parity in benefits and treatment. The rules, which will apply to almost all forms of insurance, will have far-reaching consequences for many Americans. In the White House, the regulations are also seen as critical to President Obama's program for curbing gun violence by addressing an issue on which there is bipartisan agreement: Making treatment more available to those with mental illness could reduce killings, including mass murders.
That this health care breakthrough is a long time coming doesn't detract from its significance.
In practical terms, as the White House' Stefanie Feldman explained, "Today's action means that for group and individual market health plans, insurance companies must cover mental health and addiction benefits at parity with medical and surgical benefits.... First, [parity] breaks down the financial barrier by generally prohibiting health plans from placing more restrictive monetary requirements (for example, co-pays) or treatment limitations (for example, covered visits) on mental health and substance abuse benefits than on comparable medical and surgical benefits. Second, parity reduces the stigma associated with mental illness and addiction by reaffirming that illnesses of the brain should not be treated differently than illnesses of the body."
But let's not overlook the gun-violence reforms, either. While opposition from congressional Republicans has made many policy changes impossible -- a measure on background checks was killed in April, despite 90% backing from the American public -- the original White House plan included 23 executive actions, and with today's announcement on mental health, the administration has progressed on all 23 (pdf).
As HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius explained today, "We feel actually like we've made a lot of progress on mental health as a result in this year, and this is kind of the big one."
It's easy to grow weary with unprecedented obstructionism blocking legislation on Capitol Hill, but once in a while, we're reminded that progress is still possible.
UPDATE: Related video:
Nov. 9, 201306:38