Senate Approves Mental Health Bill, Vermont Parity Law Preserved

The Senate last night passed legislation that requires insurers to provide equal benefits for mental and physical illnesses while preserving Vermont's stronger mental health parity law.

The legislation, authored by Sen. Edward Kennedy, the Senate health committee chairman, initially included language that would have watered down Vermont's law, which is the strongest in the country. Senators Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy had written a letter to Kennedy urging him to safeguard mental health

The Senate last night passed legislation that requires insurers to provide equal benefits for mental and physical illnesses while preserving Vermont's stronger mental health parity law.

The legislation, authored by Sen. Edward Kennedy, the Senate health committee chairman, initially included language that would have watered down Vermont's law, which is the strongest in the country. Senators Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy had written a letter to Kennedy urging him to safeguard mental health insurance programs in Vermont and other states that exceed nationwide standards set by the bill.

"This legislation will help provide mental health care for millions of Americans and preserve Vermont's position as a national leader in the field," said Sanders, who helped shepherd the bill to passage as a member of the health committee. "This is a perfect example of Vermont's congressional delegation working closely with mental health advocates in Vermont to achieve an outcome that benefits both Vermont and the country."

"Congress has worked on guaranteeing mental health parity for more than a decade," said Leahy. "After years of hard work, we are one step closer to ensuring that all those who suffer from mental health issues receive the benefits they need and deserve. Vermont has been at the front of the pack in this effort, so it was important to us to fix this legislation to support Vermont's standards, instead of undermining them."

Under the legislation, all self- funded employer-based health insurance plans that offer mental health benefits would have to meet the federal requirements, but states could set stronger standards. The legislation has wide support from mental health advocates, insurers and businesses. It would protect mental health benefits for 113 million people.

The measure had been approved by the committee in March, after Sanders won assurances from Chairman Kennedy that stronger state laws in Vermont and elsewhere would not be preserved. After months of negotiations, the lead sponsors of the bill brokered an agreement removing the preemption clause from the bill altogether.