Mental health may get a public policy solution

Star Store owner Gene Felton views providing full health benefits for his 22 employees as vitally important. He said he even puts off raises to provide medical insurance to ensure that all his employees are covered.

That coverage does not come cheap.

Full insurance for one employee costs $2 an hour and $7 an hour for employee with a spouse and family, Felton said. Over the last decade, medical insurance bills for the Star Store have more than doubled, rising from $3,500 a month about six years ago to $10,500 a month in 2005.

If a bill that passed the state House of Representatives last month becomes law, those monthly costs may rise even higher. The bill would require companies to provide mental health coverage, as well as medical and surgical coverage.

Labeled the Mental Health Parity Bill, the measure requires companies to provide mental health assistance to employees covered under health insurance policies.

Several Island County officials voiced their support for the bill.

It’s great that mental health will be included in policies the way health care is, said Mike Shelton, Island County Commissioner. He added that the bill’s downside, however, is that insurance companies will factor it into rates, causing the rates to go higher.

Pending approval from state Senate and Gov. Christine Gregoire, the Mental Health Parity Bill would require employers meeting a certain criteria to provide the same coverage for mental health care as medical care. That criteria includes employing at least 50 people. But, it does not require employers to provide medical insurance if they do not already do so.

If the bill becomes law, employers must provide insurance that would pay for mental health medications in the same manner a company’s health insurance pays for any other prescription drug. The bill would also require mental health insurance that would pay for visits to a mental health specialist in the same way medical insurance covers doctor visits. The law would take effect in 2006.

Local supporters of the bill said it could mean more access to professional and medical support for those with depression, schizophrenia and other mental illnesses.

“I feel this would be an important step for mental health coverage in Island County,” said Tom Sebastian, director of Compass Health.

Compass Health contracts with Island County to provide mental health care for low-income residents.

Mental health must be treated with parity, said Tim McDonald, director of the Island County Health Department. He said mental health is at least as complicated to other medical issues and requires expensive intervention.

In addition, those with mental illness have difficulty adjusting to work and a family.

Opponents of the bill — including 10th District Rep. Barbara Bailey, who voted against it — said the bill will add another mandate for small companies already paying high health insurance premiums. She said statistics collected from other states that require insurance parity and from the insurance industry show that health insurance premiums would rise at least 1 to 3 percent within the first two years if the Mental Health Parity Bill is passed.

Bailey, a member of the state’s health care committee, said she wanted more discussion about the bill before its passage.

Clinton insurance agent Michael Sutter joined Bailey’s opposition.

“I don’t know if this bill will address the real need,” he said

Because the bill only covers companies with more than 50 people, it doesn’t help most Whidbey Island businesses Sutter said. Instead, it piles on more costs for the majority of small businesses, he said.

A state-funded free clinic for those with mental health needs might work better, Sutter said.

Caught in the middle of the debate are small business owners, such as the Star Store’s Felton and Martin Schmidt, president of Interstate Label in Freeland. Both said there are positives and negatives in the bill.

Each man said they support better mental health care. But from a business standpoint, the cost may directly affect them.

“I understand the need,” said Schmidt, who provides medical insurance for his 20 employees. “But somebody’s got to pay.”

With the tripling of his health insurance rates over the past seven years, Felton said it has become difficult to pay 100 percent of the health insurance premium.

“I don’t know how much longer we can do it.”

He said the Star Store already cut out dental insurance because of the cost.

More convinced of the bill’s need was 10th District representative Chris Strow, who voted for the bill. Strow could not be reached for comment on the bill.

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