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Amid Pandemic Hardship, Two New Laws Expand Mental Health Coverage 

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Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed two bills into law that expand mental health coverage in California.

“The bills I am signing today will help Californians access the behavioral health services they need to recover,” Gov. Newsom said. “Earlier this year, I pledged to put these critical services within reach of more Californians, through reforming our Mental Health Services Act and laws that allow loved ones and service providers to ask courts to compel those who need treatment into community-based outpatient care. Today, we do just that.”

SB 855 passed through the state legislature on the last day of the session and was signed into law Sept. 25. The bill requires health insurance companies to provide coverage for mental health and substance abuse treatment deemed medically necessary.

“It’s time for every Californian to have access to comprehensive and preventative mental and physical health care. SB 855 is a big step toward ensuring that in California, mental health is taken as seriously as physical health. It’s time for insurance companies to fully cover this essential treatment,” said State Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco).

SB 855 was co-authored by Wiener, State Senator Jim Beall (D-San Jose), chair of the Mental Health Caucus, and Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry (D-Winters).

This new law comes at a time when many Californians have faced mental health challenges due to psychological stress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study, released Aug. 14, found that 40% of respondents reported struggling with an adverse mental health condition in late June. Out of about 5,400 respondents, 30% experienced symptoms of anxiety and depression and 13% had started or increased substance use to cope with emotions related to the pandemic.

According to the CDC survey, psychological stressors have a disproportionate effect on Black and Brown people, essential workers, unpaid caregivers and young adults. Also, low-wage earners were experiencing more anxiety and depression than high-wage earners.

“Unfortunately, there are gaps in the law that have allowed insurance companies to deny what is clearly medically necessary coverage for people experiencing mental health and addiction challenges,” said Senator Wiener earlier this month.

There has been a long history of health insurance plans providing better coverage for physical illness than for mental health. According to the American Psychological Association, although federal parity law requires that coverage for mental health and substance use disorders must be comparable to physical health coverage, the law does not require that all plans include mental health and substance abuse coverage. Also, a health insurance plan is allowed to exclude certain diagnoses.

The same day, the governor signed another bill, AB 1976, into law. That legislation, introduced by Assemblymember Susan Talamantes Eggman (D-Stockton), expands the use of court-ordered outpatient treatment at the county level. It also prohibits counties from downsizing those programs.

“The Assisted Outpatient Treatment demonstration project started by Laura’s Law has shown for many years that we have the tools to provide effective, community-based mental health treatment to those with the greatest need. As a social worker, I’ve long fought for the extension of these critical services and expanding this program. Finally making it permanent will ensure greater care for the people of California,” said Eggman.

Supporters of both bills praised the governor for signing them. Many of them joined Eggman in pointing out that the new policies are long overdue.

 “No one should have to suffer from mental illness or substance use disorder without support, resources and medical care. No one should have to forego mental healthcare until they’ve deteriorated to the point where they’re in crisis and in the ER. And no one should have to go into debt to pay for substance use disorder or mental health treatment,” Wiener said in his statement.

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