After more than 10 years in the making, the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act is now the law of the land. This landmark legislation requires health insurance plans that offer mental health coverage to provide the same financial and treatment coverage offered for other physical illnesses.
The idea began in 1996 when the two senators from different sides of the aisle experienced what insurance discrimination of mental illnesses did to their own families. They saw it wasn’t right and championed the movement to make it right. Because of their efforts, millions of American families will be better off.
“We are ushering in a new era of health care for those with mental illnesses. No longer will we allow mental health to be treated as a stepchild in the health care system. If you have insurance, then your mental health care must be equal to the benefits you get for any other disease,” Sen. Domenici said. “I appreciate all the partners I’ve had in this long, long effort but most especially Senator Ted Kennedy, who has been remarkable and stepped up to this work after Paul Wellstone’s tragic death. This has been a labor of love for us.”
Because of the dogged efforts of Senators Domenici and Wellstone, a scaled-down version of parity was enacted in 1996, against fierce opposition from insurance industry lobbyists. Each year, it seemed, the full version would come close to passing but never fully making its way to the president’s desk. This year, as part of the Wall Street rescue measure, it became a must sign piece of legislation. While it took more than 10 years for the full measure, the federal government and many states moved toward mental health parity sooner. The Clinton administration revised Medicaid rules to extend parity for that program. That was a major benefit for many families where someone had a severe mental illness.
Now, as a law, it is also a fitting tribute to cap the career of Sen. Domenici who is retiring at the end of this year. The battle could not have been won without his leadership.