Monday, April 29, 2002
Bush Endorses Improved Mental Health Benefits April 29, 2002 05:14 PM ET By Patricia Wilson ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (Reuters) - Breaking ranks with many fellow Republicans, US President George W. Bush on Monday urged Congress to confront the stigma of mental illness by forcing health insurers to treat psychiatric and physical disease equally. "Mental disability is not a scandal," Bush said at the University of New Mexico. "They deserve a health care system that treats their illness with the same urgency as a physical illness." Bush did not endorse any specific legislation, but he promised to work with Republican Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico who was at his side. Domenici, whose daughter suffers from mental illness, has long championed federally enforced parity guaranteeing that insurance for mental health disorders is as comprehensive as that offered for other illnesses. "We are making progress but ... there's a lot to do and some of the greatest health needs and obstacles and stigmas concern mental health," Bush said. "We are determined to confront the hidden suffering of Americans with mental illness." Bush was reprising his "different kind of Republican" image from the 2000 presidential campaign but faces some key opposition from Republican leaders in the US House of Representatives, as well as business groups, who fear legislation would significantly increase the cost of health insurance. Some studies have estimated, however, that premiums would rise as little as 0.9% if it was enacted. The White House said any bill must prevent health plans from applying less generous treatment or financial limitations to mental health benefits than are imposed on medical or surgical benefits without markedly raising costs. More than 48 million Americans currently have no health insurance and the mentally ill often have a hard time finding jobs that are key to getting coverage. Bush also announced the formation of a 15-member federal commission to develop recommendations on improving the nation's mental health care system. The panel will report in a year. SENATE VOTE SOON The far-reaching bill offered by Domenici and Sen. Paul Wellstone, a Minnesota Democrat, would require federally mandated parity. The US Senate is expected to vote on it within the next few weeks. For instance, a patient could not have a $5 co-pay for a cholesterol drug but have a $50 co-pay for an antidepressant drug. Nor could a patient have unlimited doctor's visits for, say, diabetes but have a cap on how many times a mental health provider could be seen. Domenici wants to cover all mental illnesses listed in the standard diagnostic manual. A bill Bush signed while governor of Texas covered mostly severe psychiatric disorders.