Mental Health and Substance Use:

State and Federal Oversight of Compliance with Parity Requirements Varies

GAO-20-150: Published: Dec 13, 2019. Publicly Released: Dec 13, 2019.

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Before 2008, many health insurance plans provided lower benefits for mental health care than other types of medical care. Congress set parity requirements to help address this discrepancy. This means things like copayment amounts or treatment approval requirements must be equal or comparable for mental health and other care.

The Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services commonly find violations of parity requirements in reviews based on unrelated complaints or information. The agencies only base a few reviews on potential parity violations.

We recommended the agencies evaluate the effectiveness of their oversight approaches.

Two people reviewing a counseling form on a clipboard

Two people reviewing a counseling form on a clipboard

Additional Materials:

Contact:

John Dicken
(202) 512-7114
DickenJ@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

What GAO Found

The Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 (MHPAEA) generally requires that coverage for mental health and substance use disorder (MH/SU) be no more restrictive than coverage for medical/surgical services. State agencies and the Departments of Labor (DOL) and Health and Human Services (HHS) share responsibility for overseeing compliance with these MH/SU parity requirements among group and individual health plans. These oversight practices vary.

While nearly all of the state officials who responded to GAO's survey reported that they perform some review of group and individual insurance plans for compliance with MH/SU parity requirements before they are approved to be sold to consumers, states vary in the frequency and type of reviews they conduct after consumers enroll in plans. For example, officials from 12 states reported that they conducted a targeted review of specific MH/SU parity concerns in 2017 and 2018, with the number of reviews ranging from one to 22 reviews per state.

DOL and HHS conduct targeted reviews of certain employer-sponsored group plans when they receive information—such as consumer complaints—about possible noncompliance with MH/SU parity requirements or other federal heatlh care requirements. Unlike states, these reviews only occur after consumers enroll in these plans. For example, in fiscal years 2017 and 2018, DOL completed 302 reviews that included a review of MH/SU parity compliance in its oversight of 2.2 million plans. Nearly all these reviews originated from complaints or other information about potential noncompliance with federal health care laws unrelated to MH/SU parity.

According to DOL and HHS officials, the departments have not analyzed whether relying on targeted reviews alone increases the risk of noncompliance with MH/SU parity requirements in employer-sponsored group plans. Without such an evaluation, DOL and HHS do not know if their oversight is effective or whether they need to adopt additional strategies.

While states, DOL, HHS, and the research GAO reviewed identified some instances of noncompliance with MH/SU parity requirements, the extent of compliance with these requirements is unknown. States, DOL, and HHS have identified some noncompliance with MH/SU parity requirements based on consumer complaints and other information about potential noncompliance. For example, DOL reported citing 113 violations of MH/SU parity requirements through its reviews in 2017 and 2018. The available research studies GAO reviewed also identified noncompliance with some of the requirements by reviewing plan documentation and benefit data, among other methods. However, according to stakeholders GAO interviewed, complaints are not a reliable indicator of the extent of noncompliance because consumers may not know about MH/SU parity requirements or may have privacy concerns related to submitting a complaint.

Why GAO Did This Study

MHPAEA requires large group health plans that offer MH/SU benefits to ensure parity between MH/SU and medical/surgical benefits. To meet the essential health benefits requirements of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, certain issuers offering small group and individual plans must comply with MHPAEA's MH/SU parity requirements.

The 21st Century Cures Act included a provision for GAO to review federal and state oversight of MH/SU parity requirements and the extent to which health plans comply with these requirements. This report, among other objectives, (1) examines how DOL, HHS, and states oversee health plan compliance with MH/SU parity requirements; and (2) describes what is known about the extent to which health plans are complying with MH/SU parity requirements.

For this report, GAO reviewed DOL and HHS policies, guidance, and reports; conducted a survey and received responses from all 50 states and the District of Columbia about oversight practices; interviewed officials from DOL, HHS, and selected states; interviewed national and state stakeholders; and reviewed available research studies regarding health plan compliance with MH/SU parity.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is recommending that DOL and HHS evaluate whether relying on targeted oversight is effective for ensuring compliance with MH/SU parity requirements or whether alternative approaches are needed. DOL and HHS concurred with GAO's recommendations.

For more information, contact John Dicken at (202) 512-7114 or DickenJ@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Assistant Secretary of Labor for the Employee Benefits Security Administration should evaluate whether targeted oversight in response to information received is effective for ensuring compliance with MH/SU parity requirements. If this evaluation determines the current targeted oversight approach results in significant program risks, the Employee Benefits Security Administration should develop a plan to more effectively enforce MH/SU parity requirements and if necessary seek additional oversight authority, as warranted. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor: Employee Benefits Security Administration

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of CMS should evaluate whether targeted oversight in response to information received is effective for ensuring compliance with MH/SU parity requirements for non-federal governmental plans. If this evaluation determines the current targeted oversight approach results in significant program risks, CMS should develop a plan to more effectively enforce MH/SU parity requirements and if necessary seek additional oversight authority, as warranted. (Recommendation 2)

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services: Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services

 

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