N.J. mental health patients will get help when they need it under new law signed by Murphy

Updated Apr 11, 2019

Gov. Phil Murphy on Thursday signed a bill into law that’s expected to eliminate some of the obstacles in New Jersey that force many people to forgo mental health care or go broke paying the bills.

The new law is intended to close the loopholes that have allowed managed care companies to limit mental health treatment and violate the intent of the federal Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008.

The landmark, bipartisan law required insurance companies to provide equal coverage for mental illnesses in the same way they cover physical ailments and diseases.

“For too many individuals, true parity still does not fully exist,” Murphy said before signing the law at Capital Health Regional Medical Center in Trenton.

“Unless we take the steps to close the gaps in access, individuals with mental health issues will continue to fall through those gaps, and with that, not receive the treatment that they not only need but that they deserve," he added.

New Jersey joins California, Delaware, Illinois, and Tennessee, as well as the District of Columbia, in holding insurance carriers accountable for the breadth of mental health coverage they provide.

Murphy, a Democrat, said the new law also runs counter to how President Donald Trump, a Republican, is approaching health care at the federal level.

“Once again, we’re setting New Jersey apart from what we’re seeing from the White House," Murphy said.

In some respects, the federal law worked. Insurance companies typically cover an agreed-to number of talk therapy sessions for a person with major depression just as they have covered a set number of physical therapy appointments with an injured ankle.

But insurance companies have limited coverage in other ways, such as denying doctor-recommended higher-cost therapies until a patient “fails first” on a cheaper treatment. Insurance companies may label a drug or treatment “experimental” when it isn’t the case.

The new law expands the definition of mental illnesses. If the psychiatric illness, emotional disorder, addiction, and developmental disability is included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the reference guide for all mental health practitioners, it must be covered by insurance.

The legislation also requires each insurance company to compile a report every year demonstrating how it complied with state and federal parity laws.

The state Department of Banking and Insurance must review these reports and determine whether the companies are following the law. The department must also submit a report to the state Legislature every year.

Mental health advocates say they hope the state uses the information to pursue civil penalties against insurance companies when they violate mental health parity laws.

Both houses of the Democratic-controlled Legislature overwhelmingly passed the legislation (A2031) last month — 39-0 in the state Senate and 77-3 in the state Assembly.

Coughlin said the law ensures that treatment for mental illnesses will be “placed on equal footing with physical illnesses.”

Added Kean: “This bill truly puts the health care consumer first.”

The law takes effect in 60 days — which is June 11.

Debra Wentz, president and CEO of the New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies, described the new law as “historic legislation that protects and supports New Jerseyans with a mental illness or substance use disorder from being denied the benefits they deserve."

The law will strengthen state and federal parity laws, Wentz said, “by requiring transparency and accountability.”

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