Treat Mental Illness as the Physical Issue It Is

A major side effect of the Coronavirus pandemic is the immense impact on California’s mental health and substance use. Over 22,000 overdoses and suicides are projected to result from forced isolation and rising unemployment.  

Parity means substance abuse and mental illness needs to be treated equally as physical health.  90% of those with substance use disorders, and almost 60% of mentally ill adults go untreated. California’s 21-year old Mental Health Parity Act increased access to treatment by requiring insurers to cover medically necessary services. Though the Act was a big step forward, the law has become inadequate, loopholes exist, and an update is necessary. 

Senate Bill 855, which I am co-authoring with Senator Scott Wiener (D – San Francisco) modernizes the Act by bringing it into conformity with modern practices. The Act currently requires insurers to cover “medically necessary” services, but fails to define exactly what that means. It also covers only nine severe mental illnesses and excludes all substance use disorders, like opioids, and most mental health conditions.

 SB 855 incorporates recent federal court rulings and American Medical Association recommendations to ensure that health plans cover these treatments, including preventative and diagnostic care, SB 855 will reduce the enormous public cost of untreated substance abuse and mental illness, which include costs related to law enforcement, the court system, homelessness, Medi-Cal expenses, and many other public programs. 

SB 855 is supported by over 60 leading organizations, including the California Association of Public Hospitals and Health Systems, the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, and the California Narcotic Officers Association, to name just a few.  

SB 855 passed the Senate and is now in the Assembly, where it just passed the Health Committee. The bill has bi-partisan support, and prospects for final passage look bright.