There should be no “discrimination of coverage” between mental health benefits and those paid out by insurance companies for physical health, says Rep. Martin Howrylak (R-Troy).

He introduced two bills in mid June,HB6109, and HB 6191, calling the mental health parity, requiring insurers to offer the same coverage for mental health services as traditional medical care.

“The big picture is that mental health treatment should be not subordinated to physical health because they are inextricably linked,” Howrylak explained. “They both represent heath care needs of individuals.”

He used the example of disorders like bulimia and anorexia. Left untreated, they obviously can lead to very significant health problems later on.

“If I were an insurance company, I would rather nip it in the bud because I would know that I might have to spend a little more money today but in the long run I’m going to save money,” he said. “If people are doing well mentally, they are most likely going to be doing better than they would otherwise physically. It is very antiquated to treat them separately and it is something that is not consistent with modern science.”

The issue is not new in Michigan.

Wendy Block of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which has opposed previous such proposals, said parity is already required in the federal Affordable Care Act.

True, said Howrylak, but there is a loophole in the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (MHPAEA) of 2008. That loophole is that if insurers offer mental health coverage, it has to be on par with physical health coverage. But insurers are not mandated to cover mental health. Howrylak’s bills would close that loophole. Ohio, Indiana and Illinois have passed similar bills, he noted.

“That’s not a parity bill then. That’s a health benefit mandate bill,” said Dominick Pallone, executive director of the Michigan Association of Health Plans.

His organization has not had an opportunity to review the Howrylak proposals yet, but he said similar legislation has been proposed on a variety of benefits, not just mental health. “In any given year there are probably a good dozen health benefit mandate attempts,” he said. Previous attempts to mandate benefits have included oral chemotherapy, prosthetics and autism.

“The federal law very clearly says that if a health benefit is offered, then it must be treated equally as far as cost shares, co-pays, deductibles and the like with physical health services. That’s parity. But the mandate side is whether or not a certain benefit is covered or not,” he said.

Federal law names 10 categories of benefits deemed essential for a health insurance policy, he explained. Mental health is not on the list, but many insurance companies already do include mental health in their coverage. It is then left to the purchaser to decide what level of coverage they want to buy, Pallone said.

He agrees with Howrylak that untreated mental health problems cause worse problems down the line.

“I think treating the whole person is ideal from the health perspective. I certainly agree that there are long-term societal impacts and certainly societal costs to the state if mental health services aren’t provided to individuals who need them. The state plays a crucial role in providing mental health services and paying for those mental health services. Yet we have seen lawmakers in previous years cut mental health funding at the state level,” he said.

“I would welcome any conversation with any lawmaker about the state paying for any health benefit mandate that they wish to promote,” Pallone concluded

Howrylak’s bills come in the wake of the House bipartisan mental health task force, named for its commitment to community, access, resources, education and safety. Task force members traveled throughout the state to listen to mental health experts, families, law enforcement professionals, addiction specialists and more. The group compiled a report containing recommendations about how to improve Michigan’s broken health care system.

HB 6109 and HB 6191 have been referred to the House Health Policy Committee.

This story presented in cooperation with MIRS, a Lansing-based news and information service.