Mental Health Parity: Not in Workers Comp

November 14th, 2007 by

There is a bill pending in the US Congress to require parity between mental and physical health benefits. The bill is a follow up to similar legislation passed in 1996, which was severely limited in scope: Employers did not have to provide any mental-health benefits. Copays and deductibles could be higher for mental-health expenses. Visits could be limited. And small businesses and self-insured employers which cover healthcare costs directly were entirely exempt. Not exactly my understanding of the word “parity.”
Full Parity for Mental Illnesses expands the Mental Health Parity Act of 1996 (MHPA) to prohibit a group health plan from imposing treatment limitations or financial requirements on the coverage of mental health benefits unless comparable limitations are imposed on medical and surgical benefits.
Here is a summary of the pending bill prepared by the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill:
[The proposed legislation] provides full parity for all categories of mental disorders, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and severe anxiety disorders. Coverage is also contingent on the mental illness being included in an authorized treatment plan, the treatment plan is in accordance with standard protocols and the treatment plan meets medical necessity determination criteria.
Defines “treatment limitations” as limits on the frequency of treatment, the number of visits, the number of covered hospital days, or other limits on the scope and duration of treatment and defines “financial requirements” to include deductibles, coinsurance, co-payments, and catastrophic maximums.
Eliminates the September30, 2001 sunset provision in the MHPA. Like the MHPA, the bill does not require plans to provide coverage for benefits relating to alcohol and drug abuse. There is a small business exemption for companies with 25 or fewer employees.
No Parity in Comp
Parity is an important concept, but one that simply does not exist in the workers comp system. Comp carriers habitually reject any claims for benefits based upon work-related mental disability (post traumatic stress syndrome, stress in general, depression, etc.). The insurer strategy is usually “Deny, Deny, Deny” until a judge orders otherwise.
There are a number of reasons for this virtually universal aversion to accepting mental disability claims:
: The standards for eligibility in most states are very high: work must be the predominant cause of the disability. Most of us have plenty of stress in our lives away from work.
NOTE: Long gone are the days when in order for a claim to be compensable under comp, California required a mere 10 percent of the stress to be work related!
: Comp benefits tend to be very open ended. Once the carrier accepts a (mental health-based) claim, they are likely to own it forever. As a result, they usually start by rejecting the claim.
: Unlike physical injuries, where objective criteria for treatment and recovery are often (but not always) straight-forward, the end-point for a mental disability can be very elusive.
: managed care can limit treatment for open-ended physical problems (requiring, for example, limited physical therapy, chiropractic visits, etc). Similar limits on mental health treatment (up to and including hospitalization) are more difficult – but not necessarily impossible – to impose.
It’s unfortunate that comp turns its back on the mental aspects of injury. Over the years we have seen many claims where a little counseling after the injury could significantly speed recovery. Well-structured groups could provide support to workers recovering from injuries at a very modest cost. As a culture, we have no problem treating physical disabilities, but when it comes to issues of mental health, we balk. Ironically, as often as not the mental barriers to recovery trump the physical. Out-of-work employees often succomb to depression – and once that happens, full recovery and return to productive employment are much less likely to occur.
Ultimately, it’s a matter of who pays, how much and when. The enormous cost of losing a productive worker is seldom factored into the equation. While Congress is about to force the parity issue on employers and insurers for conventional health coverage, no such pressure is pending – or is even foreseeable – for the workers comp system.