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US to require insurers to cover mental health, addiction same as physical illness

The Obama administration will require insurers to cover mental health and addiction just as they cover physical illnesses.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius made the announcement at a mental health conference Friday morning at the Carter Center in Atlanta with former first lady Rosalynn Carter.

"This is the largest expansion of behavioral health coverage in a generation," Sebelius said. "The rule is a reality in part because of the leadership of President Obama, who was committed to getting this done this year."

The administration will post the parity rule for mental health later Friday morning, Sebelius said. 

"There's no question we have to expand access to treatment, services, and support," she said.

The rule will guarantee that health plans' co-payments, limits on visits to providers, and deductibles for mental health benefits match those for medical and surgical benefits. It will also ensure that there is parity in residential treatment and outpatient services, a win for the mental health care community because so much of treatment of those suffering from mental illness or addiction is in those settings.

It will apply to almost all types of insurance, and is likely to gain an administration battered by its rocky rollout of the Affordable Care Act some popularity points.

Sebelius briefly addressed the issues with the introduction of on Friday, saying there have been "inexcusable technology problems," but said, "the new law is more than a website."

She also said how happy she was to be at the Carter Center in Atlanta, joking, "Anywhere out of Washington these days is a good place to be."

For the 85 percent of Americans who have health coverage, Sebelius said, the Affordable Care Act will expand access to mental health — giving children more behavioral assessments and adults more screenings — and for those don't have insurance, "The new health insurance marketplaces are places to obtain coverage," she said.

Sebelius pointed out on Friday that more access to screenings for behavioral health for adults 18 to 30 — the age when serious pyschosis often appears — could be critical to saving lives. She also said that annually, twice as many Americans die from suicide as they do from homicide.

"Just think for a moment how different things would be if everyone felt like they could access treatment without the fear of being judged," Sebelius said.

The regulations put into effect the 2008 Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act. According to the Carter Center, the landmark 2008 legislation combined with the new Affordable Care Act regulations for mental health as an essential service benefit extend federal parity protections to 62 million Americans.

"By ensuring people have access to care early in the onset of a mental illness, more expensive hospital and emergency services can be avoided. More people will be able to stay at work or in school or be able to contribute at a greater level to their families and communities," Paige Rohe, a spokeswoman for the Carter Center, said in a news release.

Rosalynn Carter praised Sebelius and the Obama administration on Friday.

"We finally achieved parity, which was a major milestone," Carter said.