Mental Health Parity Law Sought
By SHIRIN PARSAVAND
Schenectady Daily Gazette Reporter
July 15, 2004
Dianne O'Connor of Schenectady is struggling over what to do when her 15-year-old daughter is released from the hospital soon. Her insurance plan will not keep paying for repeated stays for the girl, who has bipolar disorder.
"It's unfair for parents to have to beg for services," O'Connor said at a news conference Wednesday.
"I should be with my daughter visiting her, not begging for insurance to continue services for her."
O'Connor was among those calling on the Legislature to come to agreement on a bill requiring insurers to cover mental illness at the same level as physical ailments.
"As the issue languishes at the Capitol, many families are now coming up against limits on the number of mental health visits covered by insurance," said Paige Macdonald of Families Together in New York State.
"Most health plans cover just 20 outpatient visits and 30 days in the hospital for mental health treatments. That means patients who go to a therapist every week would run out of insurance by the middle of June, and must pay out of pocket or go without care," Macdonald said.
Advocates pressed hard during the last legislative session for the passage of Timothy's Law, named after a Rotterdam boy who killed himself at the age of 12 after going through severe bouts of depression and anger.
Business and insurance groups that opposed the plan said it would drive up the cost of health insurance, leading to higher numbers of people without insurance at all. Supporters of the legislation said the cost increase would be minimal.
The latest version of the bill passed by the Democrat-controlled Assembly included a 3 percent tax credit for small businesses.
Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, R-Brunswick, said that did not go far enough to ease businesses' cost. At the end of the regular session last month, the Senate passed a mental health parity bill that exempts businesses with 50 or fewer employees.
Advocates said they would not accept that legislation, but Macdonald said there is still room for compromise between the Assembly and Senate.
Meanwhile, O'Connor said she must find a way to get treatment for her daughter, one of several children she adopted out of the foster care system.
She is now the mother of nine children and an advocate for adoptive parents at Parsons Child and Family Center.
O'Connor said she knows parents who have relinquished children to the foster care system so they can get treatment through Medicaid, an avenue she doesn't want to take herself.
The Senate is coming back to session next week. The Assembly has not announced when it will return to session, but both houses must act before August 2 on a state budget or temporary extension of the current budget.
A spokesman for Bruno said there have been talks between the Assembly and Senate on Timothy's Law since the end of the regular session. But an aide to the Assembly sponsor of the legislation, Assemblyman Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, said she was not aware of any negotiations on the issue since the session ended.
Timothy's Law Unfinished
New York Public Radio
July 14, 2004
Mental Health advocates are hoping that when the State Senate returns to Albany next week, members will agree to a mental health parity bill that treats mental illness the same as physical illness.
Paige McDonald, heads the Timothy's Law Campaign, the group that is fighting for a mental health insurance parity bill. She says for many people, summer is a time of relaxation and relief from daily pressures. In the state legislature, Senators and Assemblymembers have been on a break since June 23rd. But McDonald says for people with mental illness and their family members, July is a time of high stress. That's because under current health insurance laws, coverage for mental health care is running out. She says most private coverage allows just 20 outpatient visits per year.
"The 20th week of this year came on June 17th," she said.
"For the past couple of weeks, while the Senate and Assembly went home without having passed Timothy's Law, our families are paying out of pocket in order to continue the care that their loved ones need."
Ann Berardinelli is raising her 8-year-old grandson, Austin. He has bi-polar illness and obsessive-compulsive disorder. She says he loves seeing his therapist every week, and the treatment is helping.But now, Austin's benefits for the year have run out. The therapist costs $70 a week. Austin also sees a psychiatrist twice a month at a cost of $250.
Berardinelli says she'll have to cut back on the therapy visits, but will pay the therapist with her own money so that her grandson does not have to stop treatment altogether.
Diane O'Connor has nine children that she has adopted after taking in foster care children for many years. Her 15-year-old daughter, who had fetal alcohol syndrome, is currently in a psychiatric hospital in Saratoga, undergoing treatment for bi-polar disorder. O'Connor says it's the third time her daughter has been in the hospital in two months, and her benefits are about to run out.
"It's unfair," she said.
"I shouldn't be here begging, I should be with my daughter, visiting her, not begging for my insurance to continue services for her."
O'Connor, who also works at a center for troubled children, says she tells prospective parents who are willing to adopt a child with mental illness, to keep the child on Medicaid, so that they can receive proper care. She says she's considered giving her daughter back to the state so that she can get Medicaid coverage, which provides full mental health benefits. But she's reluctant to take that step.
"It's really hard for me," she said.
"How do I explain that to her?"
Timothy's Law is named after 12-year-old Timothy O'Clair, a mentally ill boy who committed suicide. His father, Tom O'Clair, has been a tireless fighter to get the legislation approved. Paige McDonald says Tom O'Clair cannot be around this month to lobby the legislature, because his benefits have been exhausted. She says he's already taken all of his vacation and sick time for the year to advocate for a mental health parity law, and cannot take any more time off from work.
The State Senate is due back on July 20th, and Majority Leader Joe Bruno has said that reaching agreement with the Assembly on Timothy's Law is a top priority. The Assembly has already passed the mental health parity measure.
In June, the Senate approved an alternative plan that would exempt small businesses from having to provide full mental health coverage. The sponsors said full mental health coverage would drive up insurance premiums and lead to even more uninsured New Yorkers. Advocates say they don't believe that argument, and find the alternative bill unacceptable.