Work on mental health parity caps Domenici’s career

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The enacting today of a bill that mandates mental health parity in the insurance industry will be the final chapter in the legacy left by the retiring Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M.

Following the House’s approval of the bailout bill earlier today that included the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008, Domenici and three other members of the Senate who pushed the parity legislation for years sent a joint news release expressing their joy at its approval.

Sens. Domenici; Ted Kennedy, D-Mass.; Mike Enzi, R-Wyo.; and Chris Dodd, D-Conn.; made approving the legislation several years ago a priority. Domenici has a daughter who suffers from schizophrenia. In the release, Domenici said the approval of the bill, which was signed by the president following today’s House vote, ushers in “a new era of health care for those with mental illnesses.”

“No longer will we allow mental health to be treated as a stepchild in the health care system. If you have insurance, then your mental health care must be equal to the benefits you get for any other disease,” Domenici said. “I appreciate all the partners I’ve had in this long, long effort but most especially Sen. Kennedy, who has been remarkable and stepped up to this work after Paul Wellstone’s tragic death. This has been a labor of love for us.”

Kennedy said in the release that, after 10 years of debate, “Congress has finally agreed to end the senseless discrimination in health insurance coverage that plagues persons living with mental illness for so long. It will now be the law of the land that people with such illnesses deserve the same access to affordable coverage as those with physical illnesses. It’s a great day for everyone who believes in fairness and fundamental justice for all.”

Enzi said the bill was “years, if not decades, in the making, and reflects countless hours of sweat and negotiation.” Dodd said the struggle has been long and hard, “but knowing that this bill will help millions of our nation’s citizens, it was well worth the fight.”

Domenici, Kennedy and Enzi authored the bill, and Dodd was instrumental in moving it through the Senate. The bill requires that health insurance plans that offer mental health coverage provide the same financial and treatment coverage offered for physical illnesses.

It’s a follow-up to 1996 legislation that was authored by Wellstone and Domenici that was enacted but mandated parity only for annual and lifetime limits between mental health coverage and medical-surgical coverage. The new legislation expands parity by including deductibles, co-payments, out-of-pocket expenses, coinsurance, covered hospital days and covered out-patient visits. The measure includes a small-business exemption for companies with fewer than 50 employees and a cost exemption for all businesses, according to the news release.

The best of Washington

I have had two experiences that showed me how much this cause meant to Domenici and what a bond this bipartisan group of senators formed fighting for it. When the liberal Wellstone died in a plane crash in 2002, I was a reporter at the Las Cruces Sun-News. Domenici agreed to talk to the newspaper about Wellstone’s death, but when he got on the phone, he choked up. A staffer then came on to say the senator could not continue the call. I learned later about Domenici’s close friendship with Wellstone.

Then, this summer, Dodd traveled to New Mexico State University to be the keynote speaker at a conference honoring Domenici. Dodd said he hoped to pass this bill before Domenici’s last session of Congress adjourned this year to honor New Mexico’s senior senator. At the event, Dodd and Domenici both spoke with concern about Kennedy’s battle with cancer and shared funny stories about the Massachusetts senator.

The senators who pushed this legislation through to enactment disagree vehemently on many policy issues, but for the most part they keep it civil and respectful and come together when they can, on issues like mental health parity. Their work to fight for this cause represents the best of Washington.

I have mixed feelings about the parity legislation being slipped into the all-important bailout bill, but I’m glad it was enacted. This was critical legislation, and the work of these men is a shining example of what Washington can but usually fails to accomplish.

What a way to cap Domenici’s career. Congratulations, senator.

One thought on “Work on mental health parity caps Domenici’s career

  1. There is an old saying in our country about things that are important and we usually sum up our argument by saying “I’ll take it any way I can get it.” I agree with the sentiment Haussamen stated about not liking the bailout bill but glad that the mental health legislation was a part of it. The mental health legislation is important to our society.