Bill expanding behavioral health coverage clears committee

Trenton, New Jersey - State Capitol Building

A 2008 federal law sponsored by Brigantine resident and former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy is the baseline for a bill making its way through the state Legislature that would require greater coverage of behavioral health care services.

The legislation, sponsored by Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Woodbridge) and Assembly Democrats Valerie Vainieri Huttle (Englewood), Pamela Lampitt (Voorhees), Joe Danielsen (Somerset), Joann Downey (Ocean Township), Annette Quijano (Elizabeth) and Mila Jasey (Maplewood) cleared the Assembly Financial Institutions and Insurance Committee on Thursday.

“This bill amends several New Jersey statutes which will require health insurance plans to treat biologically based mental illnesses the same as any other sickness under their health insurance coverage,” Coughlin said. “The intent of the legislation is to expand coverage for behavioral health care services and ensure residents receive the best care without judgment or insensitivity to their situations.”

The bill expands health insurance coverage for mental illness, emotional disorders, or drug or alcohol abuse and autism.

In addition to requiring greater coverage of insurers and health facilities, the state is also requiring accountability through the Department of Banking and Insurance, which will, in turn, provide annual reports of compliance of the new law, if enacted.

If any review of treatment of a substance use disorder is required, the bill sets the most recent Treatment Criteria for Addictive, Substance-Related and Co-Occurring Conditions established by the American Society of Addiction Medicine as the standard.

The bill also expands coverage of treatment options, preventing insurers from excluding coverage of any FDA-approved medication for substance abuse.

This has been an issue raised by Dr. Mark Rosenberg at St. Joseph’s Healthcare System, a creator of the ALTO — Alternatives to Opioids — program, which utilizes alternative treatments for pain management to avoid highly-addictive opiates.

Rosenberg has previously said it requires extra time to get insurers to cover alternative prescriptions.

“This ensures that people who are suffering from mental illness or addiction will have access to the services essential to their recovery,” said Vainieri Huttle. “Individuals who are struggling with a mental illness or addiction should not have to jump through hoops to get help.”

The bill sets a new tone of treatment of mental illness, which often has a stigma attached to it.

“Mental illness is a real heath condition and should be treated as such,” said Quijano. “It should be treated just as any other health condition, such as diabetes, hypertension or asthma. There should be no distinctions in the way that it is categorized and treated.”

Jasey said the bill will help eliminate barriers from treatment.

“Mental illness is often a taboo topic, both for the sufferer and their family members, and this lack of openness can lead to obstacles in care,” said Jasey. “This bill is yet another step in helping people eliminate some of the many barriers that prevent them from getting the comprehensive care that they need.”

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