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House panel airs Senate mental health bill.

Byline: David Steves The Register-Guard

SALEM - A House panel listened for nearly four hours as parents and others told how their medical insurance plans lacked adequate coverage for mental illnesses - leaving them with huge bills to cover the costs of treating family members.

The House Health Care Com- mittee's hearing on Senate Bill 1, the so-called "mental health parity bill," drew a packed audience of supporters, who said the law should require medical insurance to cover treatment of mental illnesses on par with coverage of physical disorders.

One such parent, Vincent Salvi of Portland, said his family's trauma of discovering son Nick was afflicted with a schizo-affective disorder was heightened by the fact that treatment costs quickly exceeded what insurance would pay.

Salvi said he and his wife ended up dipping into their retirement savings and taking out a second mortgage to pay for their son's treatment.

"Very few people can make those types of financial commitments," he said.

Another parent, Sonja Tanner, took a different route. When her employer-provided medical coverage ran out for treating her son's mental illness, Tanner told lawmakers, she ended up quitting her job so she could qualify for the government-provided insurance for low-income families, the Oregon Health Plan. Although her son Nathan received adequate treatment, her family has had to survive on far less money, at times relying on food stamps and on occasion having their utilities cut off because they weren't able to pay their bills.

"This is a choice I've been forced to make in order to provide adequate health care for my child," she said.

SB 1 is the latest in a string of such bills that have been introduced over the years to require insurance coverage for treating mental disorders.

Unlike those previous bills, SB 1 is the first to pass one chamber, having won Senate backing in March on a 23-6 vote.

Under Republican control for the past 15 years, the House has been particularly reluctant to take up mental-health parity proposals, given objections by businesses to the increased cost of fulfilling insurance coverage mandates.

That made Friday's hearing by a House panel somewhat unusual, although its chairman, Rep. Billy Dalto, R-Salem, said he was reluctant to move the bill to the House, given the need to work more on such issues as designing coverage standards and mitigating business concerns about rising insurance costs.

"There's more work to be done before we can move forward on this bill," he said.

The issue has hit the national radar. Twenty-three states have already passed or are considering legislation requiring private insurers to provide as much coverage for mental-health treatments as they do for physical medical care. Washington's Legislature passed such a bill this year.

Businesses, which share the costs of insurance with their employees, have opposed such efforts. In Oregon, the National Federation of Independent Business, Associated Oregon Industries and insurance companies are lobbying against SB 1.

Lisa Trussell, a lobbyist for AOI, told the House panel that for every 1 percent increase in mandated insurance coverage, 3,000 Oregonians will lose their employer-provided insurance because companies won't be able to afford the increase. In other instances, rising insurance premiums become so costly that employees choose not to cover dependents, she said.

But another business lobbying group, the Oregon Business Association, urged lawmakers to pass the mental health parity bill, saying the bill was good for society and for business. The association is a more politically liberal alternative to AOI.

Covering mental-health treatment will help employers' bottom line by reducing absenteeism and increasing productivity, the association said.

Dawn Bonder, a senior policy analyst for the association, told lawmakers that its members realized the proposal would increase costs.

"However, they also recognize that you really need to take a forward-looking view at the investment that those premiums make in terms of reducing costs in other ways," she said.
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Title Annotation:Legislature; The `mental health parity' measure would require insurance plans to give equal coverage for treatment of mental illness
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:May 21, 2005
Words:646
Previous Article:Wine will flow at 'Art and Vineyard'.
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