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Van Hollen Says That Mental, Physical Health Should Get Equal Treatment

By Esther Nguonly
Capital News Service
Friday, Jan. 26, 2007

WASHINGTON - Mental health patients deserve the same treatment under insurance plans as other medical patients, according to Rep. Chris Van Hollen Jr., who will co-sponsor a bill to ensure fair coverage for mental health and addiction care.

Van Hollen, D-Kensington, along with Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, D-R.I., and Rep. Jim Ramstad, R-Minn., will host a forum in Rockville Monday to hear testimony on the necessity of such legislation.

"Treating mental health issues in the same way that we treat other medical conditions is often a matter of life and death for millions of people," said Van Hollen. "Moreover, the costs to society of leaving these illnesses untreated are significant."

About one in four Americans suffer from some form of diagnosable mental health disorder each year, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health.

However, a majority of those who need mental health insurance do not receive it, according to the Office of the Surgeon General.

Depression, bipolar disorder, autism, mental retardation, alcohol abuse and eating disorders are common conditions listed among hundreds by the American Psychiatric Association.

"One of the things we grapple with with mental health issues is the stigma associated with it," said Sharon Friedman, executive director of the Mental Health Association of Montgomery County. "Lots of times, people don't even want to discuss it."

The legislation, first introduced in 2003, required insurance companies to provide equal coverage of benefits for all patients.

"This legislation is long overdue," said Van Hollen. "This bill addresses a problem in our health care system that has been unaddressed for too long and that has made critical treatment unavailable for so many."

Often employers who are obligated to provide employee health insurance, "have for decades differentiated between mental illness and all other illness in ways that disenfranchise people, or limit their access solely because of the nature of their illness . . . and could be looked at as a violation of fundamental civil rights," said Ibson.

Business and insurance companies oppose the legislation because it poses constraints for procedures that should be voluntary, Ibson said. It would also invite other groups to try to impose other types of coverage.

"Nobody wants to be 'anti-mental health,' " he said. "Everyone opposes 'mandates.' "

The bill had majority support in past Congresses, Van Hollen said, but Republican leaders refused to bring it to a vote. He said he hopes that the new leadership will push the bill into law.

"We can't wait any longer," he said.

"Those suffering from mental illness in 2007 are waiting to end the discrimination sitting at the core of many of those health plans," said Ibson.

The Maryland forum will be the third in a national tour, which began in Rhode Island, continued to Minnesota and is scheduled to move on to Los Angeles and Washington state.

Witnesses will include Maryland consumers of mental health treatment, National Institute of Mental Health Director Thomas Insel, former Vice President of the American Psychiatric Association Steven Sharfstein and President of Mental Health America David Shern.


Copyright 2007 University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism

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