Christine Stuart photo

The recent economic bailout package provided more than help for Wall Street, it included better insurance coverage for those with mental illness by ensuring, for the first time, that mental illness is treated the same as physical illness.

“Mental illness will no longer take a backseat to physical illness,” US Senator Chris Dodd, D-CT, said Wednesday at the Institute of Living in Hartford.

Even though Connecticut was ahead of the curve by passing a mental health parity law back in 2000, some large employers and those that self-insured were not required under the state law to provide equal coverage of mental and physical illnesses.

“This new law means that your insurance company can no longer charge you a higher co-pay, a higher deductible or any higher out-of-pocket cost to treat a mental illness or substance abuse disorder than it would for you to treat any other medical or surgical condition,” Dodd said. “It also means your insurance company will no longer be allowed to impose greater treatment limitations, specific to mental health and substance use.”

“It’s been a long road,” Dodd said.

Dodd said the mental health parity law would have been much harder to pass with a new Congress in January.

“It was one of the ironies or ironies. I suppose we didn’t get the kind of public attention—the day this bill passed the United States Senate—it probably should have,” Dodd said explaining how it was wrapped up in the economic rescue package. Dodd added that while it may have received the least attention from the media the day it was passed, it will have the longest impact on our country.

Dr. Hank Schwartz, chief psychiatrist at the Institute of Living, said people who are touched by mental illness and addition know what happened.

Christine Stuart photo

“I doubted we would ever reach this day,” State Healthcare Advocate Kevin Lembo said. He said when advocates tried to make improvements to the 1996 parity bill they received a lot of opposition and for many the goal of parity seemed politically unrealistic.

“It was Chris Dodd who snatched this mental health parity law from the edge of death and made it his priority,” Lembo said.

As an advocate Lembo said one of his greatest frustrations was watching two families with children that had the same mental illness navigate the health care system. He said because of the structure of their health insurance plans they received very different care and had two very different outcomes.

Health care advocates hope the passage of this law will help reduce the stigma and discrimination those with mental illness and substance abuse disorders face.