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Senate Committee Approves Several Health Bills

The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee approved several health-related bills during a mark-up on August 1. Bills to expand mental health parity; reauthorize community health centers; promote awareness of stroke prevention, treatment, and rehabilitation; expand public access defibrillation programs; and encourage pharmaceutical companies to conduct more pediatric clinical trials were approved during the mark-up.

The Committee approved, 21-0, legislation (S. 543), sponsored by Sens. Pete Domenici (R-NM) and Paul Wellstone (D-MN), to continue and expand mental health parity in health insurance coverage. The bill would expand the Mental Health Parity Act of 1996, passed as part of the FY1997 Veterans Affairs, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies appropriations bill (P.L. 104-204); the mental health provisions expire on September 30. Under current law, insurers that offer mental health coverage are required to set similar coverage limits on annual and lifetime coverage for mental and physical illnesses. The Committee-approved legislation would expand current law to prohibit group health plans from treating mental health benefits differently than medical or surgical benefits. The bill would only apply to plans already providing mental health benefits and is modeled after the mental health provisions of the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program.

The chair’s mark included an amendment by Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) to make the bill’s provisions apply only to companies with more than 50 employees, as is the case under current law; the original bill required companies of 25 or more employees to comply with the bill’s provisions.

At the beginning of the mark-up, Committee Chair Edward Kennedy (D-MA) referred to the legislation as “true civil rights legislation to restore dignity” to those individuals with mental illness. Sen. Wellstone stated, “This bill goes a long way toward our bipartisan goal: that mental illness be treated like any other disease in health care coverage.” Sen. Domenici urged, “We must act swiftly and surely to get this bill through the legislative process before the old parity bill expires and millions of Americans are left without a vital safety net.”

While expressing his support for the legislation, ranking Member Judd Gregg (R-NH) stated that he may offer an amendment during floor consideration to limit the availability of the benefits should insurance costs rise over a certain threshold or should a certain number of employees lose health insurance coverage as a result.

Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R-AR) indicated that he may offer an amendment during floor consideration to provide a conscience clause to ensure that the bill does not mandate health providers to provide a benefit they oppose on religious grounds.

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