February 14, 2017
Authored by: Chris Rylands and Serena Yee
While on this day, most people focus on the heart, we’re going to spend a little time focusing on the head. Under the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (MHPAEA), health plans generally cannot impose more stringent “non-quantitative” treatment limitations on mental health and substance abuse benefits (we will use “mental health” for short) than they impose on medical/surgical benefits. The point of the rule is to prevent plans from imposing standards (pre-approval/precertification or medical necessity, as two examples) that make it harder for participants to get coverage for mental health benefits than medical/surgical benefits. “Non-quantitative” has been synonymous with “undeterminable” and “unmeasurable”, so to say that this is a “fuzzy” standard is an understatement.
However, we are not without some hints as to the Labor Department’s views on how this standard should be applied. Most recently, the DOL released a fact sheet detailing some of its MHPAEA enforcement actions over its last fiscal year. In addition to offering insight on the DOL’s enforcement methods, it also provides some examples of violations of the rule:
- A categorical exclusion for “chronic” behavior disorders (a condition lasting more than six months) when there was no similar exclusion for medical/surgical “chronic” conditions.
- No coverage resulting from failure to obtain prior authorization for mental health benefits (for medical/surgical benefits, a penalty was applied, but coverage was not denied).
- A categorical exclusion for all residential treatment services for mental health benefits.
- Requiring prior authorization for all mental health benefits when that requirement does not apply to medical/surgical benefits.
- Requiring a written treatment plan and follow-up for mental health benefits when no similar requirements were imposed on medical/surgical benefits.
- Delay in responding to an urgent mental health matter (it’s not quite clear how this is a violation of the rule since there was no discussion comparing the delay to medical/surgical benefits, but we list it for completeness).
This is not an exhaustive list, but it gives at least a flavor of some of the plan provisions and/or practices that might violate the rule. In addition, the DOL previously issued a “Warning Signs” document that provided other examples. Further clarity is also expected in the future. Under the 21st Century Cures Act that was passed late last year, the DOL and other relevant departments are tasked with providing additional examples and greater clarity on how these rules apply.
One might be tempted to think that the Trump Administration will not enforce the MHPAEA rules as tightly as the Obama Administration did. At this point, it is hard to say. The 21st Century Cures Act also directed the relevant agencies to come up with an action plan to facilitate improved Federal/State coordination on these issues, so even if the Federal government backs off, there may be state enforcement actions under applicable state statutes as well.
Given these developments, plan sponsors should review the existing DOL releases and additional documents as they come out against their plan terms and discuss practices for approving and denying mental health claims with their insurers or third party administrators to evaluate whether they may be running afoul of these rules. Plan sponsors of self-funded plans have greater control over how their plans are designed and, in some cases, administered. However, even sponsors of insured plans should consider engaging their insurers in a discussion on these points to avoid potential employee relations issues and unexpected jumps in premiums that could happen if an insurer is forced to change its policies by the government.