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Wyden, Bennet introduce legislation to expand access to mental, behavioral health care

WASHINGTON (KTVZ) -- Sens. Ron Wyden and Michael Bennet introduced legislation Wednesday that would expand access to mental and behavioral health care for Oregonians and all Americans on Medicare, Medicare Advantage, Medicare Part D and Medicaid. 

Here's Wyden's news release about the legislation:

“Mental health care should be affordable, reliable and accessible for everyone,” said Wyden, who as Chair of the Senate Finance Committee overseeing Medicare and Medicaid, has introduced legislation for an historic investment in mental health services and access in Oregon and nationwide.

“For too long, mental health care has taken a back seat to physical health in the United States,” Wyden said. “This bill begins to tip the scales by applying mental health parity protections across the health care system, and strengthening penalties on insurance companies that flout the rules. This legislation will help Oregonians and those struggling with their mental health nationwide get the care they need when they need it. I’ll keep fighting to make mental health parity a reality in this country.”

Nearly one in five American adults suffer from mental illness; one in four older adults reported having anxiety or depression; and more than four in 10 high school students felt persistently sad or hopeless. And despite around a quarter of Medicare beneficiaries living with a mental illness, only less than half receive treatment.

The 2008 Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act extended mental and physical health care parity to private and employer-provided plans, but plans provided by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services were not subject to this requirement. This leaves the 60 million seniors covered by Medicare and many of the 90 million people enrolled in Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program unable to benefit from the parity requirements. The Better Mental Health Care for Americans Act addresses this gap and removes unnecessary obstacles for low-income kids and seniors to access the mental health care they need.

Specifically, the bill introduced Wednesday by Wyden and Bennet, D-Colo. would do the following:

  • Require parity for mental and behavioral health services in Medicare Advantage, Medicare Part D, and Medicaid;
  • Ensure Medicare Advantage plans maintain up-to-date provider directories so beneficiaries can access care more easily;
  • Encourage mental and behavioral health integration with physical care by increasing reimbursement rates for Medicare and Medicaid;
  • Increase access to integrated mental and behavioral health care for children in schools; 
  • Require the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to develop and implement plans to better align payments, measure access and quality, and improve prevention services for mental and behavioral health care. 

“Mental Health America applauds Senators Bennet and Wyden for their comprehensive bill to transform our fractured and ineffective mental health system by incentivizing integrated primary care, requiring accurate provider directories, and extending parity protections,” said Schroeder Stribling, President and CEO of Mental Health America. “These provisions make impactful changes to address the ongoing mental health and substance use crisis.”

“Family physicians play a critical role in identifying mental health conditions, reducing the stigma of mental illness, and helping patients treat their behavioral health needs—including children and adolescents. However, physicians face barriers to receiving full reimbursement for providing mental health services, which stymies their ability to integrate behavioral health care into their practices and treat patients. Family medicine emphasizes the link between physical and mental health. Without family physicians, many patients who experience mental illness may go without treatment. To that end, the AAFP is pleased to endorse the Better Mental Health Care for Americans Act, which will help ensure our patients have equitable access to mental health care,” said Tochi Iroku-Malize, MD, MPH, President of the American Academy of Family Physicians.

“All people deserve access to equitable and comprehensive substance use disorder and mental health care, but the vast majority of Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries never receive that care. Legal Action Center strongly supports Senator Bennet and Senator Wyden’s Better Mental Health Care for Americans Act to ensure non-discriminatory insurance coverage in Medicare Advantage and all Medicaid plans through application of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act. Consumers will have far greater access to care where and when they need it most if the bill’s provisions on improved transparency of provider networks and integration of behavioral health care into medical settings are adopted. As Americans continue to die from overdose at unprecedented numbers – with increased rates in Black and other communities of color – this bill will help the 94% of people with a substance use disorder who do not receive any treatment,” said Ellen Weber, Senior Vice President for Health Initiatives of the Legal Action Center.

"Senators Bennet and Wyden have taken on the critical role of trying to solve our decades-long fractured, fragmented, and disjointed approach to mental health and substance misuse. This piece of legislation is a much needed addition to work being done for mental health. It tackles several issues at once, which, if passed, could offer relief to families looking to get access to care. From financially incentivizing the integration of mental health in critical places like primary care to assuring multi-payer alignment on quality of care, this legislation pushes beyond traditional approaches to mental health creating new and exciting access points for countless in need. In addition, this legislation attempts to address the mental health discrimination in health coverage often seen in certain programs like Medicare Advantage. By requiring these health plans to be accountable to mental health parity laws, fewer families will be denied care that is rightfully theirs by law. This piece of legislation is encouraging – it’s another sign that Senate leadership is willing to commit to doing more to transform mental health in this country," said Dr. Benjamin F. Miller, past president of the Well Being Trust and adjunct professor at Stanford School of Medicine.

Text of the bill is here. A summary of the bill is here.

Article Topic Follows: Government-politics

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