LENA MITCHELL: Mental health insurance coverage boosted by new rules

Signing up on the federal government’s Healthcare.gov website for health insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act continues to be a major problem for potential subscribers.

I expect those problems to decrease in the coming weeks so that people who desperately need access to health care coverage can have their needs met.

While those concerns are drawing the most attention from lawmakers and media, another critical health care insurance matter has been made easier for people in need of help.

On Nov. 8, President Obama signed new rules that will make it easier for many people who need to use their health insurance benefits for mental health and substance abuse problems to receive equal coverage for those diagnoses as for a physical ailment.

The Paul Wellstone and Pete Dominici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2008 as part of the financial bailout.

The law generally requires that employers that offer group health coverage offer the same benefit for mental health and substance abuse disorders that they offer for medical or surgical problems.

Before this final new rule was put into place, many insurers have escaped their obligation under the 2008 law by imposing higher deductibles and co-payments on the mental health and substance abuse benefits they offer. The new rules eliminate the distinction and say the same co-payments and deductibles must apply to mental health and substance abuse as to medical and surgical conditions.

The Affordable Care Act builds on the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act and requires coverage of mental health and substance use disorder services as one of 10 essential health benefits categories, says the Health and Human Services news release about the new rules. Under the essential health benefits rule, individual and small group health plans are required to comply with these parity regulations.

Expanding the number of people who can get help under these new rules is significant. Not many families in 2013 have escaped the ravages of drug abuse or mental illness, and too often the barrier to treatment is inability to pay or lack of coverage. Hopefully now more of the people who have access to coverage will seek the help needed for themselves or family members.

The Health and Human Services website lists the following telephone number and website to contact for anyone who has concerns about whether a health plan is complying with the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act: (877) 267-2323, extension 6-1565 or email phig@cms.hhs.gov.

Last week a coalition of the American Heart Association, the American College of Cardiology and the Obesity Society issued new guidelines for physicians to help combat the obesity epidemic, of particular interest in Mississippi, which has the second highest adult obesity rate in the nation for 2013.

The organizations are urging physicians to make a discussion about weight and obesity a specific focus in patient appointments, including suggestions on weight loss.

Among the 10 essential services covered under the Affordable Care Act are preventive and wellness services and chronic disease management, with obesity screening and counseling for all adults listed as one of the preventive and wellness services.

Lena Mitchell is the Daily Journal Corinth Bureau reporter and writes a Sunday column each month. Contact her at lena.mitchell@journalinc.com.