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State Board Closes Gap in Mental-Health Coverage for Public Employees

Governor Christie also announces new health plan options, wellness incentives

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New Jersey public employees needing mental health counseling and care will receive the same insurance coverage as they would for any other illness, matching a recent change affecting municipal workers.

The change was made on September 20 by the state panel that oversees the benefits available to state, county, and municipal workers. Gov. Chris Christie announced the change yesterday. He also announced that four new lower-cost health plan options would be available to workers, as well as financial incentives of up to $250 annually for public employees to participate in wellness programs.

Christie had come in for criticism from some Democratic lawmakers for vetoing a bill, S-1253, that would have established mental health “parity,” requiring that alcoholism, other substance-use disorders and non-biologically based mental illnesses receive the same coverage as other diseases.

A long-standing state rule limited coverage to “biologically based” mental illnesses. This includes schizophrenia, depression, paranoia, and autism but left out a wide range of conditions such as eating and anxiety disorders and disorders resulting from sexual abuse and assault, as well as alcoholism and substance abuse. Mental health experts said there was no scientific distinction between the two groups of illnesses and that New Jersey’s provision was unique in the country.

The agreement is the latest in a series of expansions that are dissolving barriers separating mental health issues and other conditions. The expansion of Medicaid eligibility in the state will to newly eligible residents.

In vetoing the measure on August 19, Christie said it would have limited the role of the health-benefit design committees created under the bipartisan reforms of public employee benefits he signed into law in 2011. These committees include a mix of state officials and union leaders.

At that time, Christie announced that the design committee for teachers benefits had reached an agreement to provide mental-health parity, and he urged the State Health Benefits Program Plan Design Committee to reach a similar agreement. He said was pleased to announce the agreement yesterday.

“Both of the State’s health benefit plans will now be using a plan design that maintains long-term cost-effectiveness and achieves my abiding commitment to dealing fairly and compassionately with those battling mental illness and substance abuse,” Christie said in a statement.

Christie also announced that public workers and their spouses or partners would be able to participate in a wellness program offering incentives to exercise, improve their diets, and receive health screenings. The incentives will start at up to $100 in gift cards in 2014 and will be raised to up to $250 by 2016.

The new health plan options will include lower premiums, but higher copayments and deductibles. The plans may prove to attractive to younger and healthier workers who expect to use fewer healthcare services.

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