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Time to make mental health parity a priority

Mental health is health — period.

When someone gets the flu, or sprains an ankle, there’s no question about whether care is needed. If that person has health insurance, they can go to their doctor, or nearest urgent care or hospital. It’s often a commonplace, run-of-the-mill experience. You go in, you pay a copayment, you see the health care professional, and you’re on your way home.

Unfortunately, the experience for someone with a mental health condition or in need of treatment for substance use disorder is usually very different. Often, people feel apprehensive about seeking treatment in the first place. They worry, “What will my friends think?” or “I probably shouldn’t tell my job that I need time off to see a psychologist.”

Trust me: I had similar thoughts when I needed help dealing with alcoholism in my 20s. I knew something was wrong, but it was so hard to take that first step. I’m grateful that I had access to the care I needed, because once I did ask for help, my life started to change for the better.

But for many, once they reach a point where they’re ready to seek care, getting that care can be an even bigger challenge. From identifying professionals who will take your insurance to figuring out what requirements you need to meet for treatment to be covered by your plan, the process can be incredibly difficult to navigate. Not only is this frustrating for those who need critical services — in many cases, it’s illegal.

The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, passed in 2008, aims to improve access to treatment for mental health conditions and substance use disorders. At its core, the law is designed to make sure insurance companies and health plans cover mental health and substance use disorder treatment the same way they cover physical care. Whether you’re seeking help for a sprained ankle or for opioid use, your benefits are protected by the law.

Nearly two years into a pandemic, more people than ever need care, and are seeking care, for mental illness and substance use disorders. So it’s more important than ever to make sure everyone can get the help they need. Getting the care that you are entitled to should never be a struggle.

That’s why mental health parity is a priority for the Biden-Harris administration, for the Department of Labor, and for me personally.

Last year, Congress provided us with new tools to enforce the law — and we are using them. Our Employee Benefits Security Administration is taking action to ensure equal access to treatment for mental health conditions and substance use disorders for the more than 136.5 million people in insurance plans covered by the law.

Last week, we released a report to Congress that highlights where we have found insurance companies and health plans are falling short when it comes to providing parity in care, and how we’re ramping up our enforcement of the law.

We have increased the staff and resources dedicated to this work. Our teams are identifying violations and working with employers and companies to increase compliance. Group plans and insurers must be able to show us their work, if they’re claiming to meet the requirements of the law. In addition, we are reaching out to consumers, health plans, insurance companies, and state regulators to help them understand and follow the law moving forward.

And, just as important, we are working with a wide range of partners all across America to reduce the stigma attached to mental health and substance use treatment that prevents people from exercising their rights and seeking care in the first place. Everywhere I travel, I talk about these issues — and I always find families, providers, and communities who are eager to address them.

We hope this report and our ongoing efforts show health plans that we take this issue seriously — and provide more opportunities for people to get the care they need and are entitled to under the law.

The fact is, mental health is simply health. And I know from experience: when someone reaches out their hand for help, that is the moment when care and treatment must be there for them.

Martin Walsh is the secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor.

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