Agencies call for parity in mental health insurance coverage

By SAODAT ASANOVA-TAYLOR

Capital News Service

LANSING – Mental health advocates want the state to revise the proposed autism-treatment law to require health insurance to cover mental illness.

They endorse the legislation to mandate that private insurance providers cover autism related-disorders, but say mental health disorders need equal coverage.

Michael Brashears, executive director of Community Mental Health in Ottawa County, said the biggest problem in his county is not just autism, but also other moderate mental conditions.

“Autism is not more severe than other disorders. We see more cases of moderate forms of developmental disabilities such as conduct disorder, depressive disorders and anxiety that affect both children and adults in our areas,” he said.

Gov. Rick Snyder has endorsed legislation to require private health insurance to cover autism treatment.

Brashears noted that private and public insurance and Medicaid cover only severe mental disorders, while people with moderate conditions who don’t have insurance or whose private insurance doesn’t cover their condition are left on their own.

“Why do we force people to become extremely ill when we can treat them with moderate conditions? We wait until the emergency level, and at this point the treatment costs more and can be less successful,” Brashears said.

According to Robert Sprague, executive director of Lapeer County Community Mental Health Services, both severe and moderate cases of mental disorders among children are at the same level as autism.

His agency serves about 1,600 clients, including 350 children with Down’s syndrome, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and life-long developmental disabilities.

“I don’t think any particular mental issues should be singled out. It is difficult to tell parents of another child, with another disability, that their child is not covered. Those families need to pay from their pocket, and many times it is a financial hardship,” he said.

Sprague said his agency developed a fee scale that reduces the charges for particular families, depending on their economic situation.

“We try to do everything we can to meet the needs of the families in difficult times. We collaborate with different agencies in the region. We try to combine our limited resources and provide maximum positive outcomes for our people,” Sprague said.

In Jackson County, the tough economic situation is one reason for the increased of number of people seeking mental health services, and also an increase in the suicide rate, according to a local agency.

Heather English, public relations specialist for LifeWays Community Mental Health in Jackson, said loss of jobs and loss of public insurance are burden for families because many don’t qualify for Medicaid, or their private insurance packages don’t cover certain mental disorders.

“We see an increase in post-traumatic stress disorders, anxiety and depressive disorders both among children and adults,” she said.

“We try to provide services to everyone, but not everyone is referred to us at early stage because they don’t have coverage. When such situations are left untreated, sometime it leads to suicide,” said English.

Department of Community Health statistics show that Michigan’s suicide rate for 2009 was 11.1 percent per 100,000 people, while the rate of suicide in Jackson County was higher, 14.1 percent per 100,000.

“We applaud that our government is taking mental health disorder issues forward, but we need to include all parts into it, not just autism,” English said.

Ingemar Johansson, chief operating officer at the Centra Wellness Network in Manistee, agreed that there should be parity in mental health coverage. He said it’s unfair to cover one but not the other.

“The head is attached to the body. Mental disorders in all forms affect the rest of the body, and treatment should be provided adequately,” he said.

According to Johansson, the most common mental problems in Manistee and Benzie counties are bipolar disorder and depression among adults.

“Autism is not a big trend in our region and didn’t pop up in children until the last few years,” he said.

“It is good thing that autism treatment laws are on the rise, but for us and for everyone in the state, it is necessary that all the other mental disorders should be covered as well,” said Johansson.

Meanwhile, Leigh White, president-elect of the Michigan Psychiatric Association and a psychiatrist at the Michigan State University Counseling Center, said more than 50 percent of children with autism in the state have other mental illnesses.

“I believe the state should end insurance discrimination. Forty-three states adopted the mental health parity law and it is time for Michigan to do so,” she said.

White said she would support the legislation only if it includes all neuropsychiatric illnesses.

“I have written to my representative and will continue to advocate for a mental health parity law until it passes,” said White.

© 2012, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Nonmembers cannot reproduce CNS articles without written permission.

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