SPRINGFIELD – State lawmakers are moving toward requiring expanded coverage for mental health conditions in health plans.

By Andrew Thomason

SPRINGFIELD – State lawmakers are moving toward requiring expanded coverage for mental health conditions in health plans.

The state House recently approved a plan on a 70-39 vote that would mandate that private health insurance plans providing mental health coverage include substance abuse and autism coverage in any new or renewed policies.

It also states that if a company provides mental health coverage, it must do so at the same level that it provides physical health coverage.

The legislation is similar to provisions in a federal law that passed in 2008.

Opponents said the bill could lead to some businesses decreasing health coverage.

But having better coverage for more people in Illinois could save taxpayers, according to state Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, who is sponsoring the legislation.

“If policies were to cover this, again which is not required, but if policies were to cover mental illness, including substance abuse and autism coverage, then I think it might trickle down to the taxpayers and save us all some money,” Lang said.

The state’s Department of Human Services spent $843 million on addiction and mental health programs last year, but would see that number drop to $765 million, or a 9.2 percent drop, under Gov. Pat Quinn’s proposed budget. DHS spokesman Tom Green said this is mainly because of cutting programs that aren’t covered by Medicaid.

Private insurers could pick up some of that tab, under proposals now in the Illinois Senate.

Lang said being able to provide coverage for more people through private industry could also save people money because people who are mentally healthy are usually more physically healthy.

That may be so, said state Rep. Michael Tryon, but this could have an adverse affect on small businesses owners such as himself. Tryon voted against the measure, and said it’s up to the consumer to know what is in their health care package.

The real flaw with the legislation is a lack of choices, according to Kim Clarke Maisch of the National Federation of Independent Businesses.

“It takes away options from employees and employers in terms of level of coverage. Right now business owners and employees can sit down and decide what type of health coverage they want and what they can afford,” Maisch said.

Both Maisch and Tryon said that somewhere along the line, someone would have to pay for the added coverage, that or employers faced with providing mental health coverage that is on par with physical health coverage might just opt to drop that option altogether.

“While I may need health insurance and feel more comfortable with certain mental health provisions in it, I also might feel I need insurance I can afford and that’s not something I’m worried about,” Tryon, a Crystal Lake Republican, said. “So if we start mandating it, we start driving more people out of being able to afford basic health care.”

State Rep. Pattie Bellock, R-Westmont, sits next to Tryon in the General Assembly and shares some of his concerns, but ultimately voted for the plan.

Bellock questioned why the legislature would take up any health insurance issue that doesn’t need immediate attention when all the changes from the national health care reform haven’t gone into effect.

“I am such a strong advocate for mental health and I do believe that there should be parity between physical health and mental health, that in the end I supported the bill but I still have concerns over some of the issues that are in it,” she said.

The legislation is worthwhile, but Mary Kay Betz, executive director of the Autism Society of Illinois, says classifying autism under the umbrella of mental health doesn’t give it enough weight.

“We’ve already talked with different organizations, and we feel that we don’t need another mental health parity for autism, but it would help,” Betz said. “It’s a stigma of it being a mental health issue, and it’s not. It’s in addition to all the other disorders.”

Calls to advocates from the group Mental Health Illinois and representatives of private insurance companies were not returned.

The measure, House Bill 1530, now waits for state Senate action.

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