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Clinton Orders Improved Mental Health Coverage for Feds

By Paul Stone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, June 8, 1999 – President Clinton announced June 7 he will require all health care providers to improve mental health and substance abuse coverage by 2001 if they want to remain part of the Federal Employees Health Benefits program.

"I believe that OPM [Office of Personnel Management], in cooperation with these health plans, can demonstrate that mental health and substance abuse parity can be achieved at an affordable price," Clinton said. "The goal is to make plan coverage for mental health and substance abuse care identical to traditional medical care with regard to deductible, coinsurance, co-payments, and day and visit limitations."

Clinton made the announcement at the first-ever White House Conference on Mental Health, held at Washington's Howard University. The conference was designed to focus attention on mental health concerns and treatment and to reduce the stigma attached to mental health illnesses. The host was Tipper Gore, wife of Vice President Al Gore and the president's mental health policy adviser.

"Parity" refers to health insurance carriers' practice of providing less coverage for mental health treatments than for treatment provided by a primary care physician. Most insurance companies participating in the FEHB have higher deductibles for mental health care, pay less per visit and often set an annual limit on the number of appointments to mental health professionals, Clinton pointed out.

"Some don't cover it at all, or not enough," Clinton said. "I think we can do it at a reasonable cost and, over the long run, lower mental health costs. It's time our health plans treat all Americans equal."

OPM, through negotiations with insurance carriers, has already eliminated lifetime and annual maximums for mental health care. The president said the steps he is requiring will move mental health care to the same footing with standard care by any physician.

OPM has sent letters to all 285 FEHB plan providers informing them of the president's decision. The companies insure about 9 million federal employees, retirees and their families.

The National Institute of Health estimates that 22 percent of Americans 18 and older suffer from some form of mental disorder in any given year. Most are treatable, such as minor or clinical depression.

In addition to his decision to improve the health benefits program, Clinton recently signed an executive order changing civil service rules to treat psychiatric disabilities more equitably. Under the order, federal agencies must consider hiring job applicants with psychiatric disabilities according to the same standards used for applicants with severe physical disabilities or mental retardation.

Additional information on the FEHB program, mental health and substance abuse parity, is available on OPM's Web site at www.opm.gov.

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