Parity bill would protect Vermont's mental health laws (Times Argus)

By Daniel Barlow Vermont Press Bureau

Vermont's two senators successfully negotiated with one of their colleagues late last week to remove a portion of a new federal mental health parity bill that many believe could have pre-empted the state's stronger law.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., agreed on Friday to strip the pre-emption portion of his massive new federal mental health parity proposal after months of negotiations with Vermont's Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, and Bernard Sanders, an Independent.

Mental health advocates in Vermont this week applauded the change, which they said would ensure that the state's tougher law passed a decade ago wouldn't be affected if Kennedy's proposal is approved by the U.S. Congress.

"The prospect of this passing without this change would have meant trouble for Vermont's law," said Ken Libertoff, the executive director of the Vermont Association for Mental Health. "We are all really relieved to see that this has been resolved."

Vermont passed one of the country's strongest parity laws in 1997, which required insurance companies to offer the same coverage for mental health and substance abuse issues as they do for physical health.

Previously, companies offering insurance plans in the state only had to offer limited coverage in those two areas. Kennedy's proposal would create parity across the country, although it does not go as far as the laws in Vermont and several other states.

Beth Tanzman, the deputy commissioner of the Vermont Department of Mental Health, said there have been a number of drafts as the bill progressed through the Senate, but that the latest change goes the farthest in protecting Vermont's standards."Right now we believe that if the bill passes with the latest draft's language, that it would retain the status quo here in Vermont," Tanzman said.

Leahy and Sanders have worked for months on negotiating changes in Kennedy's proposal, which the senior Massachusetts senator unveiled in April. David Carle, a spokesperson for Leahy, said they did not want to see a new federal law undercut the progress Vermont has made.

Michael Briggs, a spokesperson for Sanders, said an agreement to simply remove the language regarding pre-emption entirely from the bill was reached late last week.

"The good news is that we reached an agreement with Sen. Kennedy to drop the pre-emption language," Briggs said Monday. "We're now hoping that this legislation can go forward."

Kennedy's bill had been expected to pass the Senate on Friday, according to Laura Capps, the senator's spokesperson, but an anonymous senator used a parliamentary procedure called a hold to block a scheduled vote.

Capps said the bill had been expected to pass with strong support. It would also still need to pass the U.S. House before becoming law. Neither will occur until the U.S. Congress returns from its summer break in September.

"It looks like we will have to wait," Capps said. "We came so close and despite the broad support the bill has, apparently someone objects."