Mental health advocates push equality in health insurance

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SHERIDAN — Lobbyists and others involved in mental health care across the state will meet with legislators next week, urging them to institute state statute that would require insurance companies to follow federal law regarding mental health insurance coverage.

Registered lobbyist and mostly-retired psychologist Hollis Hackman pored over documentation acquired from the Wyoming Department of Labor. The documentation recorded every complaint submitted or question asked about mental health insurance within the state of Wyoming.

“They sent us 275 records/pages responsive to our request — I’m just quoting from their report here — which had to do with any complaints about parity from within the state of Wyoming,” Hackman said.

“I calmed that sample down because there were some things that were kind of erroneous that were included; there were a few things from other states, and I threw all of those out and we came up with this stack of 60 complaints and/or questions about parity from Wyoming consumers.”

When first presenting the information, Hackman only had national statistics to present to the Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Committee in October 2018. After presenting the suggestion for a mental health parity bill, the committee voted 7-7, forcing the committee to not construct a bill as a whole body. So, Hackman sought potential individual sponsors for the piece of legislation.

He found Rep. JoAnn Dayton-Selman, D-Rock Springs, who helped write the bill and sent the drafted version to the Legislative Service Office to be assigned a bill number and received for introduction. The bill will start in the House and, according to Hackman, might receive additional sponsors from the Senate. Hackman said the bill will also be a bipartisan piece of legislation for the lawmakers to consider.

The Wyoming bill has been in the works for years. In 2008, a federal bill signed into law by former President George W. Bush had been worked on by Hackman — serving as the federal advocacy coordinator for the Wyoming Psychological Association and the American Psychological Association — and a group of congressmen for 10 years prior to it becoming law.

Following the federal bill becoming law, Hackman worked with state legislators to enact legislation reinforcing the federal law for mental health parity, joining the 45 states already doing so. But with a lack of Wyoming-centric statistics paired with it being a budget year, the legislation didn’t make it to the floor.

This year, Hackman and other supporters have high hopes for the bill’s success. If it does not pass, Hackman said the insurance commissioner for the state — who said the office would remain neutral on the bill — will issue a bulletin encouraging insurance companies to adhere to the federal law.

“But we really want to have statute because it has more teeth,” Hackman said. “…We’re hopeful for a positive outcome.”

The bill itself requires insurance companies to ensure equality between mental health care and medical/surgical health care. If insurance companies provide coverage for mental health in its policies, the companies cannot be any more restrictive than for medical/surgical diagnoses.

Cal Furnish, who serves as treasurer for the Sheridan County Suicide Coalition, said most insurance companies cover mental health services, but in reality the copays and other expenses do not equal other medical services.

“It’s a lot higher in a lot of cases for mental health services than it is for medical services,” Furnish said.

Furnish and Hackman both emphasized the need for ease in mental health insurance coverage, as it may be difficult for patients to come forward and seek treatment for mental health care in the first place.

If insurance companies are not adhering to the existing federal bill and the patient files a complaint with the state insurance commissioner, the commissioner does not have authority to take action. Instead, the commissioner would have to refer the patient to the federal representatives, making it even more difficult for an already mentally unstable patient to be pushed through additional stress and work to receive help.

“That’s just one more hurdle for someone who’s trying to seek help,” Hackman said. “We want to remove all barriers and want to make it as easy as possible to seek treatment and talk to their insurance company about that.”

The changes, if signed into law, will make Oklahoma and Missouri the only two states left to pass state legislation regarding the federal mental health parity requirements.

By |Jan. 11, 2019|

About the Author:

Ashleigh Fox joined The Sheridan Press in October 2016 as the public safety and city government reporter before moving into the managing editor position in November 2018. She is a native of Colorado and graduated from Biola University in Los Angeles, CA. Before working in Sheridan, she worked as a sports editor for the Sidney Herald in Sidney, Montana. Email Ashleigh at: ashleigh.fox@thesheridanpress.com

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