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New law equalizes insurance for both physical, mental ills

Gov. Christine Gregoire on Wednesday signed a bill co-sponsored by 26th District Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Gig Harbor) that would guarantee an estimated 1.6 million Washington residents insurance coverage for their mental health needs.

Health insurance has been used for decades to help employees cover the cost of both medical catastrophes and everyday injury and illness. It’s only recently that mental health emergencies and illness have been accepted into the fray — albeit with limited coverage options and numerous restrictions.

For example, an individual with a reoccurring physical condition is allowed as many doctor’s office visits as necessary for treatment.

However, an depressed individual is usually limited in the amount of office visits he is allowed to make to his psychiatrist or mental health professional every year.

Starting in January, insurers will be required to pay for office visits to healthcare professionals regardless of specialty, and will not be allowed to charge more for prescriptions that treat depression and anxiety than they do for those that treat headaches, heartburn or other common ailments.

Co-payments and premiums may not be higher than for other medical services.

Over the next four years, the remaining sections of the bill will be phased in. By mid-2010, health insurance policies cannot impose different restrictions on mental health services, such as the number of office visits allowed.

“One of the great values of this legislation was coming to the acknowledgment that we need to treat mental illness the way we treat physical illness,” Kilmer said. “The complications of mental illness are the same as physical in terms of days lost at work and familial problems. There’s a cost to that.”

According to Kilmer, extending mental health insurance coverage will go far in reducing worker absence and even imprisonment. Kilmer also said studies have shown that the leading cause of hospitalization in the state is mental illness.

However, the new law is not all-inclusive. Small businesses with fewer than 50 employees and the one-fifth of companies that are “self-insured,” as well as policies sold to individuals, are exempt.

The law will apply to patients in the state’s Basic Health Plan for the working poor, some government employees and an Insurance Commission estimated 1.6 million workers in Washington state.

“I was quite pleased to see the bill signed into law,” Kilmer said. “I think preventive care is the best care we can have.”

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