(AP) A day after the Senate passed legislation that would require equal health insurance coverage for mental and physical illnesses when policies include both, the House took a step toward passing a similar bill.
The House Ways and Means health subcommittee approved the "Paul Wellstone Mental Health and Addiction Equity Act" Wednesday, named for the late Minnesota Democratic senator who championed the issue for years. The bill now goes to the full committee for a vote.
Also Wednesday, the White House said it was studying the bills but hasn't taken a position on them.
"The president has said our health insurance system must treat serious mental illness like any other disease," said White House spokesman Alex Conant. "Americans with mental illness deserve a health care system that treats their illness with the same urgency as a physical illness."
In a 2002 speech, a few months before Wellstone's death in a plane crash, Bush embraced the cause, saying he would work with Congress "to reach an agreement on mental health parity - this year."
That didn't happen, of course, but momentum for the legislation picked up when Democrats won control of both Houses of Congress last fall.
In July, the House Education and Labor Committee approved the legislation. Backers are urging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to have a vote on the bill by the middle of next month, a goal that her spokesman said was a realistic target. More than half of the House members have signed on as co-sponsors.
The House bill is sponsored by Rep. Patrick Kennedy, a Rhode Island Democrat who has battled depression, alcoholism and drug abuse, and Rep. Jim Ramstad, a Minnesota Republican who is a recovering alcoholic.
"This landmark bill to provide greater access to treatment is the legacy I want to leave to millions of Americans suffering from mental illness and addiction," said Ramstad, who is retiring from Congress after next year. "Patrick Kennedy and I look forward to dedicating this landmark parity law to the memory of its original author and our friend, Paul Wellstone."
"Millions of Americans are counting on Congress to pass a bill that addresses the inequities in mental health coverage," said Kennedy.
The Senate bill was sponsored by Kennedy's father, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Sens. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and Mike Enzi, R-Wyo.
Originally, that bill called for pre-emption of state parity laws in treatment limitations and financial requirements, causing a rift between supporters of the House and Senate bills, but the Senate bill dropped that provision.
The House version specifies that if a plan provides mental health benefits, then it must cover conditions provided by the health plan with the highest average enrollment of federal employees. The Senate legislation does not include that language.
Eleven years ago, Wellstone and Domenici won passage of legislation banning plans that offer mental health coverage from setting lower annual and lifetime spending limits for mental treatments than for physical ailments.
The Senate and House bills would build on that by adding things like co-payments, deductibles and treatment limitations. Wellstone had long fought for that expansion.