Roundtable Eyes Health Issues

September 8, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — Community leaders gathered in Grand Rapids today to discuss putting insurance coverage for mental health services on par with plans for physical health.

The issue is important for small and medium business, said Crowe Chizek Consulting Principal John Canepa, because of the potential of parity to improve productivity and the bottom line.

“Through appropriate mental health care, I think the opportunity exists to increase productivity by increasing total work output. It is certainly an offset to any fear of increasing premium costs,” said Canepa, one of 10 speakers anticipated for the morning-long Public Policy Roundtable on Mental Health Parity at the Women’s City Club.

Long an issue for advocates, parity would require that group insurance benefits cover mental services at levels equal to coverage provided for physical ailments. Forty-two states today have mental health parity laws on the books, but in Michigan, legislation has been stalled for more than a decade, said Kathleen Gross, executive director of the Michigan Psychiatric Society.

Gross, also slated to speak at today’s forum, said that while lawmakers have been willing to introduce bills during every session for the past 15 years, party leadership has been unwilling to move them forward. Parity laws are opposed by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Alliance for Michigan, a business-union coalition that rejects any insurance mandates.

“We are one of only eight states that have really failed to have some form of mental health parity legislation. Michigan is really significantly behind in this regard,” Gross said.

A study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2006, showed that parity coverage, instituted for federal employees in 2001, resulted in small premium increases but did not produce an increase of use in treatment services. 

While large employers can offer improved mental health coverage to employees, because of their smaller pools, Michigan’s small and medium businesses that buy group insurance don’t have that option available, Gross said.

Dale Robertson, president and CEO of the Public Museum of Grand Rapids, said he planned to propose today that advocates tie physical and mental ailments to try to gain some traction in Lansing. Robertson worked for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan for nearly two decades before taking the museum’s helm in August. He said he has about 20 years experience under the Capitol dome in government affairs for the state’s largest insurer and as a Senate staffer.

“The lack of mental health parity can limit options for treatment,” Robertson said. “Advocacy in years past has focused almost exclusively on strictly the mental health aspect. My words would encourage advocates to broaden the strategy to include mental health and physical health. Mental health can impact physical health, and physical health can impact mental health.”

He cited recent studies that show a link between cardiac and diabetic symptoms to depression, and noted that often treatment plans for mental illness include an exercise component.

“Pretty much what I would suggest is building those links,” Robertson said. “Costs are going to be an issue. It’s incumbent upon the advocates, they’re going to have to step up and address that, and argue that in the long-term, it will be a benefit and you should get better outcomes by linking the two.”

U.S. Navy veteran Canepa, who said he supports mental health parity legislation, added that better mental health coverage is important for the thousands of Iraq War veterans returning to the workplace.

“The veterans coming back from war shouldn’t have to suffer because of the lack of parity in insurance coverage, particularly after risking their life to ensure our way of life,” he said.

Any solution must keep in mind the businesses that foot insurance premiums, Robertson added.

“They understand that the business person is trying to make a living, and they’ve got to watch the bottom line,” Robertson said. “When they advance their point of view, they have to be sensitive to that.”

In addition to Canepa, Gross and Robertson, speakers at today’s roundtable included Kent County Commissioner Paul Mayhue, Touchstone Innovare CEO Greg Dziadosz, Dr. Holly Perkins, network180 Executive Director Paul Ippel, the Rev. Mark-David Janus, Mayor George Heartwell and Dr. Khan Nedd.

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