Senators to craft major mental health package with focus on reforming pay parity, expanding telehealth

A bipartisan group of senators is crafting a package that tackles several barriers to mental health access, with a major emphasis on pay parity between behavioral and physical health and furthering telehealth use.

The Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, announced the contours of the mental health legislative package during a hearing Tuesday on youth mental health. Wyden said the goal is to get together a bipartisan bill by the summer.

“The law requires equality for coverage between physical health and coverage for mental health,” Wyden said during the hearing. “Too many families in America are put through bureaucratic torment when they try to get that coverage.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a massive need for mental health services and that demand has run into longstanding issues with parity.

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Wyden announced that several senators will work on particular branches of the legislation. For instance, Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, and Richard Burr, R-North Carolina, will work on ensuring parity between mental and behavioral health.

Sens. Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, and John Thune, R-South Dakota, are also looking to further the use of telehealth, which has exploded thanks to increased flexibilities for reimbursement for telehealth for mental health services.

“We did it as a necessity during COVID-19 and now we are coming out of COVID-19 we would like to make permanent changes,” Cardin said during the hearing.

He also emphasized the need for an expanded adequate workforce to provide mental health services.

“There is a chronic shortage in underserved communities because we don’t have the diversity in the providers we need,” Cardin said.

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, M.D., testified that growing the mental health workforce was a key recommendation of an advisory posted late last year.

“We have too few providers to meet the growing demand,” he said in his testimony. “And we need to make sure care is delivered at the right place and time, whether that’s in healthcare settings like primary care practices, or community-based settings like schools.”

Sens. Bill Cassidy, R-Louisiana, and Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, introduced legislation last June intended to help states enforce federal mental health parity laws. The Parity Implementation Assistance Act would give out $25 million in grants to states to help oversight of health insurance plan compliance.