Push is On for Parity Passage as Congress Winds Down

Key leaders in Congress reached agreement on competing versions of addiction and mental-health parity legislation over the summer, and now advocates are pressing lawmakers to close the deal by voting on the measure before Congress adjourns.

Addiction treatment advocates organized a national call-in day this week to urge Congress to pass a measure that would require health plans to cover addictive diseases and mental-health conditions on par with other illnesses. Pat Taylor, executive of Faces and Voices of Recovery, said the campaign generated thousands of calls on Sept. 10 imploring lawmakers not to adjourn for the 2008 legislative session without passing the Mental Health and Substance Abuse Parity Act (HR-1424 and S-558).

“What's exciting is the number of organizations that took part,” said Taylor. “I think the ongoing advocacy from such a broad range of constituencies has made a huge difference in moving the legislation forward.” Among the groups that called on members and supporters to dial the Capitol switchboard or a special Parity Hotline were the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI), the Legal Action Center (LAC), Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America, and the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.

The parity legislation was approved on a 268-148 vote in the House of Representatives in March and by unanimous consent in the Senate last fall, but the House and Senate versions of the bill differed and had to be reconciled before a final vote could be held. In June, lawmakers negotiated a compromise bill that advocates say contains many features of the stronger House bill, including coverage for out-of-network care and transparency provisions. “It was a big victory,” said Gabrielle de la Gueronniere, deputy director of national policy at LAC.

The bill still must clear a few hurdles, including finding offsets for the estimated $1.1 billion that parity is expected to cost taxpayers over the next five years (3.4 billion over 10 years) and determining a legislative vehicle to get the measure to the president. The parity bill can either be attached to another measure or voted upon as a stand-alone measure, but the latter would require a unanimous-consent vote in the Senate.

Because of the presidential election in November, just a few weeks remain in the 110th Congressional session. Advocates note that if the bill doesn't get passed this year the entire legislative process will have to start from scratch in the next session of Congress. “That would be really challenging, and we're so close” to passage now, said LAC's de la Gueronniere.

Taylor said she is very hopeful that a vote on parity will take place, however, and Andrew Sperling, director of legislative advocacy for NAMI, said he is “reasonably optimistic” as well.

“We're down to the wire, but all of the right people are pushing for it,” said Sperling. “[Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reed and [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi want to do it … There's no lack of political will.”

Supporters of parity can still contact their individual lawmakers to urge them to call upon the Congressional leadership to vote on the parity bill. A Washington, D.C., rally in support of the bill is also planned for Sept. 17, and attendees will include bill sponsors Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), and Rep. Jim Ramstad (R-Minn.).

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