The Obama administration announced on Friday new regulations that require private health plans to cover mental health care and addiction just as they do physical illnesses and injuries.
The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Act was signed by President George W. Bush in 2008, but it wasn't widely enforced. The new regulations are the first real effort to guarantee its practical application.
Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman, president of the American Psychiatric Association, told CNN, "Up to now, the law has not been complied with. Many private insurers gave nothing. Some provided benefits, but they were limited and inadequate."
Under the new guidelines, features such as co-pays, deductibles, and visit limits for mental therapy and addiction treatment are required to match up with those offered for medical and surgical benefits.
For example, private insurance policies can no longer provide only a two-day hospital stay for a patient who has suffered a psychotic break, while providing a 30-day hospital stay for a patient who has suffered a stroke. The administration's provisions also mean that pre-existing mental health conditions such as depression can't be used to deny a patient new coverage.
Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius said in her Friday announcement, "This is the largest expansion of behavioral health coverage in a generation."
The National Institute of Mental Health reports that about one in four adults suffers from depression, and Sebelius noted that twice as many people die from suicide than from homicide.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, the move is part of the Obama administration's larger effort to curb gun violence in the U.S., in this case by increasing access to affordable mental health services and destigmatizing mental illness and substance abuse as afflictions to be suffered in silence.