PRESS RELEASE: Senator Beall, Senator Wiener, Assemblymember Aguiar-Curry Introduce Mental Health Parity Bills

January 14, 2020

The bills, cosponsored by The Kennedy Forum and Steinberg Institute, guarantee insurance funding and access to life-saving mental health and addiction treatments.

SACRAMENTO – Senator Scott Wiener (D- San Francisco), Senator Jim Beall (D- San Jose) and Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry (D- Napa) introduced two landmark mental health and substance use disorder bills in an effort to address California’s growing and intertwined mental health and addiction crises.

Senate Bill 855 strengthens the California Mental Health Parity Act, requiring insurance companies to cover all medically necessary mental health and substance use disorder treatment, and Senate Bill 854 prevents health plans from requiring prior authorization or step therapy when a patient is in need of an FDA-approved medication to treat a substance use disorder, including medication-assisted treatment. They spoke today alongside former Congressman Patrick Kennedy and Mayor Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento, founders of The Kennedy Forum and Steinberg Institute, respectively. These two organizations promote improving access to mental health treatment and mental health parity in insurance coverage, and are sponsoring the bills.

Mental health parity requires insurers to cover treatment for mental health and substance use disorders no more restrictively than treatment for illnesses of the body, such as diabetes and cancer. Congressman Kennedy is the author of the landmark federal Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 5 US adults experience mental illness each year. And data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) shows that 19.7 million US adults battled a substance use disorder in 2017. Mental health challenges and substance use disorders are among the most common medical issues in this country, and deserve to be taken seriously by the medical community and insurance companies. Too many Californians living with these conditions are unable to access sufficient insurance coverage of mental health care and addiction treatment, and are forced to pay large sums out of pocket, or send themselves, friends or family into debt paying for treatment. Many forego treatment altogether. That’s why Senator Wiener, Senator Beall, and Assemblymember Aguiar-Curry are working together to make sure that insurance companies provide timely and equal coverage to those living with these conditions who need treatment.

These mental health parity bills come off the heels of Senator Beall’s introduction of SB 803, the Peer Support Specialist Certification Act of 2020. Senator Wiener and Assemblymember Aguiar-Curry co-authored the bill, alongside Senator Wilk, Assemblymembers Waldron, Arambula, Grayson, Ramos and Wicks. Peer Support Services are a key part of a comprehensive and effective behavioral health system, and SB 803 will create statewide standards and certification for this important part of the workforce.

Currently, the California Mental Health Parity Act (1999) requires that medically necessary treatment be covered by commercial insurers for a limited number of nine severe mental illnesses. Now, Senate Bill 855, introduced by Senator Wiener, extends required coverage to all medically necessary mental health and substance use disorder treatments, not just for these nine conditions. SB 855 also prohibits insurance companies from limiting benefits or coverage of chronic conditions, or short-term and acute treatment.

Medication-assisted treatment, or MAT, is the gold-standard of treatment for opioid use disorder and combines a medication with behavioral therapies. Even when a doctor judges that a patient is in need of MAT, patients often go without treatment because of prior authorization and step therapy requirements. SB 854, introduced by Senator Beall, removes these barriers, allowing a doctor to provide timely and appropriate treatment. More than half of surveyed doctors in California have said insurers’ restrictions on MAT have made it difficult for their patients to access this life-saving treatment, and when MediCal prohibited prior authorization for buprenorphine, a primary MAT medication, and utilization nearly quadrupled.

“When Californians are wrongfully denied coverage for mental health and addiction treatment, their conditions often deteriorate, resulting in escalating costs for the state and contributing to homelessness. These bills will increase access to care, as well as life-saving medications for opioid addiction. I applaud Senators Beall and Wiener, and Assemblymember Aguiar-Curry for their leadership,” – former Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy, founder, The Kennedy Forum.

“Mental health parity is an empty promise if people struggling with addiction can’t get effective treatment.” Says Senator Jim Beall, who has consistently championed mental health throughout his career. “Addiction is one of California’s toughest mental health challenges, and a public health crisis. It’s wrong to allow insurance companies to delay or deny life-saving medication-assisted treatment prescribed by a doctor. Delays and denials result in death, and we won’t allow it.”

“It’s long past time we end the stigma around mental illness and addiction,” said Senator Wiener. “No one should have to suffer from mental illness or substance use disorder without support, resources and medical care. No one should have to forego mental healthcare until they’ve deteriorated to the point where they’re in crisis and in the ER. And no one should have to go into debt to pay for substance use disorder or mental health treatment. It’s time for every Californian to have access to comprehensive and preventative mental and physical health care. SB 855 and 854 are big steps toward ensuring that in California, mental health is taken as seriously as physical health. We must de-stigmatize mental health and substance use disorders and help people get the care they need. It’s time for insurance companies to fully cover this essential treatment.”

“We are in a mental health crisis. Millions of Americans suffer from a behavioral health or substance use disorder, and if we think getting physical healthcare is hard, consider the difficulty in identifying and accessing mental healthcare,” said Assemblymember Aguiar-Curry. “I am proud to partner with Senators Beall and Wiener, The Kennedy Forum, and the Steinberg Institute on this legislative package to remove barriers to medically necessary mental healthcare.”

“We see the consequences of inadequate coverage of mental health and addiction treatment all around us. When California passed the groundbreaking California Mental Health Parity Act in 1999, we established the right to have medically necessary treatment covered for nine serious mental illnesses. Now we must go further and expand this right to cover all mental health conditions and substance use disorders and to finally prohibit barriers to medication-assisted treatment. I urge the legislature to pass these bills,” said Mayor Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento and Steinberg Institute Founder.

Senator Wiener, Senator Beall, and Assemblymember Aguiar-Curry are proud to coauthor these critical pieces of legislation, with sponsorship from The Kennedy Forum and Steinberg Institute, as well as support from the California Alliance of Child & Family Services, the National Health Law Program, the Mental Health and Autism Insurance Project, the California Council of Community Behavioral Health Agencies (CBHA), and Autism Deserves Equal Coverage.

This legislation will help ensure that every Californian has access to mental health care and substance abuse treatment. Every person knows someone who experiences or is personally impacted by these issues, and it is time for real parity measures that guarantee full coverage.

SB 854 Mental Health Bill Fact Sheet 

Contact, Sen. Wiener: Catie Stewart, catie.stewart@sen.ca.gov, 610.675.6342

Contact, Sen. Beall: Carrie Holmes, carrie.holmes@sen.ca.gov, 916-651-4015

Contact, Asm. Aguiar-Curry: Melinda Gutierrez, melinda.gutierrez@sen.ca.gov, 916-319-2004

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