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Vitale-Buono Bill To Ensure Insurance Coverage For Alcoholism, Substance Abuse And Mental Disorders Advances In Assembly

TRENTON – A bill sponsored by Senators Joseph F. Vitale and Barbara Buono which would require insurance companies to cover alcoholism, substance abuse and mental disorders under the same terms and conditions as for other diseases or illnesses was approved by the Assembly Appropriations Committee today by a vote of 10-3.

“The health care literature terms mental health disorders and alcohol and drug addiction as diseases,” said Senator Vitale, D-Middlesex, the Chair of the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee. “Treatment for these disorders is expensive, and out-of-reach for many New Jerseyans battling alcoholism, drug abuse and mental disorders on a day-to-day basis. We need to provide parity through our State’s insurance regulations, and give New Jerseyans living with these diseases access to treatment they need.”

“Right now, the health insurance safety net is incomplete, because decisions to cover addiction treatment and mental disorders is made on an arbitrary basis from company to company,” said Senator Buono, D-Middlesex, a member of the Senate Health panel. “Many times, those decisions are more affected by the bottom line of the company than what’s best for the patients being served. By mandating treatment for mental health and alcohol and drug abuse, we’re putting the people of New Jersey above profits.”

The bill, S-807, would expand State-mandated health insurance coverage for treatment of all mental and nervous disorders included in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the health care community’s standard for mental health treatment. The bill would also include alcoholism and other substance-abuse disorders in the list of mandated treatments, and requires that these disorders be covered under the same terms and conditions of other diseases. Currently, insurers are only required to provide coverage for biologically-based mental illness, such as schizophrenia.

“New Jersey residents living with mental disorders don’t differentiate whether their disorder is caused by an imbalance in brain chemistry or a behavioral pattern,” said Senator Vitale. “All they know is that they’re sick, and they need treatment to be better. New Jersey needs to stand up for those citizens suffering from mental illness or addiction, no matter what the cause of their illness.”

Under the bill, addiction treatment services would be offered when a licensed health care professional or addiction treatment professional prescribes such treatment for an individual. The bill would allow, at the insurer’s discretion, out-of-State professionals to perform addiction treatment services.

Both Senators noted that providing increased coverage for mental health and addiction treatment would serve a societal benefit as well as ensure access to treatment. They noted that, according to a study from Columbia University’s National Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse, 80 percent of adult felonies are tied to substance abuse.

“Alcoholism, substance abuse and mental illness are at nearly epidemic proportions in our State’s urban centers,” said Senator Vitale. “Untreated addiction and mental disorders can lead to increased violence and desperation among those who suffer from the diseases. By requiring insurers to step up and meet their responsibility to those covered, we can go a long way to removing the pressure for those residents who feel pushed into a life of crime.”

“Beyond simply reducing crime rates in our State’s cities, providing access to addiction and mental health treatment will have a number of other benefits,” said Senator Buono. “Addiction and mental illness isn’t some far-off concept, but it afflicts our neighbors, our friends, our family, and it infects every aspect of their lives. Giving these folks a lifeline to treatment will help them overcome their diseases, and resume being productive members of our society.”

The bill now heads to the full Assembly for consideration.

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