Massachusetts Senate approves mental health parity bill

BOSTON (AP) — Individuals suffering from mental health issues would have access to health care on par with those suffering from physical ailments like high blood pressure or diabetes under a bill approved unanimously Thursday by the Massachusetts Senate.

Supporters say the bill would help remove existing barriers to prompt health care, provide the state with better tools to enforce its mental health parity laws and create a more diverse workforce of mental health clinicians.

The bill is a priority for Democratic Senate President Karen Spilka, whose father suffered from serious mental health problems. She said she began talking publicly about her experiences in recent years to help bring mental health issues into the light.

“I speak about it because I truly believe we have to break the silence, we have to break the stigma,” Spilka said at a press conference before debate began in the Senate.

Lawmakers put several steps designed to get mental health care on equal footing with other forms of medical care in the bill, which is aimed at building on mental health parity laws passed in 2000 and 2008. The bill would end the need for patients experiencing acute mental health crises to get prior authorization from insurers before receiving care and making critical changes around how providers can bill for services.

The legislation would also create a special commission charged with recommending a common set of criteria to be used by health care providers and insurers for mental health services.

It also would expand mental health access to underserved cultural, ethnic and linguistic populations and the LGBTQ community by creating a pipeline of more diverse mental health professionals. Currently about 90% of mental health clinicians in Massachusetts are non-Latino whites.

Sen. Julian Cyr, one of the bill’s backers, said he struggled with anxiety and depression growing up, adding that he was bullied and had panic attacks in school.

Cyr, who is gay, said therapy has helped him accomplish things he never thought he could — but getting access to that therapy and getting his insurance to cover it hasn’t always been easy, something he said the bill tries to address.

“I’m a pretty savvy consumer. If I can’t figure out how to navigate through these barriers in accessing care in this broken system, imagine how many other people in Massachusetts can’t get the mental health they need?” Cyr said.

Lora Pellegrini, president of the Massachusetts Association of Health Plans, said the group believes the entire health care system — not just health plans — should be responsible for reaching the goal of mental health parity in Massachusetts. She said the bill would help move the state in that direction.

Pellegrini also said it’s important that state agencies, working with the attorney general’s office, create a uniform understanding of the federal mental health parity law and issue state guidelines “so that Massachusetts consumers, employers, providers and health plans can understand their rights and responsibilities under the law free of competing interpretations.”

The bill carries a price tag of about $5.7 million — money that wouldcome out of an existing state fund.

The bill now heads to the Massachusetts House.

Republican Gov. Charlie Baker has tried to address some of the same concerns in a separate health care bill he filed.

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