Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Dot gov

The .gov means it’s official.
Federal government websites often end in .gov or .mil. Before sharing sensitive information, make sure you’re on a federal government site.


The site is secure.
The https:// ensures that you are connecting to the official website and that any information you provide is encrypted and transmitted securely.

Consistency of Large Employer and Group Health Plan Benefits with Requirements of the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008

Publication Date

Eric Goplerud, Ph.D.

NORC at the University of Chicago

Printer Friendly Version in PDF Format: (151 PDF pages)

The Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (MHPAEA) of 2008 was signed into law on October 3, 2008, and became effective for plan years beginning on or after October 3, 2009.1 The history of parity legislation shows that implementation of requirements in this area is not always straightforward and ensuring equitable treatment of mental health (MH) and substance use disorder (SUD) treatment is often complicated. The Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services contracted with NORC at the University of Chicago to study how health plans and insurers have responded to MHPAEA in the first years after its effective date. NORC led a research team that included Milliman Inc., Aon Hewitt, Thomson Reuters/Truven Health Analytics, and George Washington University to perform an analysis of adherence to the MHPAEA and the Interim Final Rule (IFR)2 among Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA)-governed employer-sponsored group health plans and health insurance coverage offered in connection with such group health plans. Our analysis includes information from a variety of existing and complementary data sources, including MHPAEA testing databases compiled by both Milliman Inc. and Aon Hewitt, data from Aon Hewitt's Plan Design Database (PDD) which contains more than 10,000 unique plan designs for more than 300 employer clients, Summary Plan Descriptions of midsized establishments obtained from the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), and published and unpublished data from national employer health benefits surveys conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation and Health Research and Educational Trust (KFF/HRET)3and Mercer.4 To assess plan responses to MHPAEA's disclosure requirements, semi-structured interviews were conducted with a small number of health plan representatives who were responsible for their plans' compliance with MHPAEA.

The evaluation studied seven questions. The results are summarized below.

  1. What types of financial requirements (e.g., copays, coinsurance) do group health plans use for MH/SUD benefits, and are such requirements consistent with the new MHPAEA standards for calculating the predominant level that applies to substantially all medical and surgical benefits?
  • Inpatient. According to Milliman's analysis of health plans in a representative sample of large group plans offered in 2010, 10% of large employers' behavioral health benefits had inpatient financial requirements that needed modification to comply with MHPAEA. In Aon Hewitt's analysis of large group plans offered in 2011, virtually all large employers' plans had inpatient benefit designs that conformed to MHPAEA standards. Aon Hewitt's analysis of changes in plan design between 2009 and 2011 showed that use of higher copays and coinsurance for inpatient MH/SUD decreased rapidly in large employers' plans following the implementation of MHPAEA.

    A preliminary analysis of a small sample of behavioral health benefits offered by midsized employers indicates that those benefits appear to have followed a similar trajectory. Before the implementation of MHPAEA, between 10% and 16% of midsized plans in our sample appeared to offer inpatient financial requirements that did not appear to conform to MHPAEA standards. Following the implementation of parity, less than 7% of plans in our sample continued to do so.

  • Outpatient. Deviations from MHPAEA standards for outpatient behavioral health benefits were substantially higher than for inpatient benefits. More than 30% of large employers' plans in Milliman's 2010 sample utilized copays or coinsurance rates for outpatient benefits that were inconsistent with MHPAEA standards. In-network outpatient benefits were more likely to be inconsistent with MHPAEA requirements than out-of-network MH/SUD outpatient benefits.

    In Aon Hewitt's 2011 sample, fewer plans had unequal MH/SUD outpatient coverage. However, about one-fifth continued to utilize outpatient in-network copays that failed to meet MHPAEA standards. Year-by-year analyses from 2009 to 2011 confirm a dramatic decline in the use of more restrictive coinsurance, copays and other financial requirements for MH/SUD, but a minority of plans continued in 2011 to impose higher cost-sharing, especially for in-network outpatient MH/SUD treatment.

    In our limited sample of plans offered by midsized employers prior to MHPAEA, one-half used higher cost-sharing for MH/SUD. After the effective date of MHPAEA, many plans offered by midsized businesses eliminated unequal cost-sharing for out-of-network MH/SUD outpatient treatment. But over 40% in our sample continued to have higher copays or coinsurance for in-network MH/SUD outpatient services than for medical/surgical primary care physician (PCP) visits. If the persistence of unequal financial requirements are borne out, that may suggest a need for greater education, oversight and accountability.

  • Emergency Care and Prescriptions. In Milliman's sample of 2010 plan designs, the vast majority of plans offered to employees of large businesses provided prescription coverage that met MHPAEA standards for cost-sharing. But one-fifth required higher cost-sharing for behavioral health emergency services than other medical emergencies. The most commonly identified issue was higher coinsurance rates for emergency MH/SUD care. All of the 2011 plans examined by Aon Hewitt provided both emergency and prescription coverage that appeared to comply with MHPAEA's cost-sharing standards.

    The 2010 Mercer Survey found that only 3% of employers surveyed reported decreasing or planning to decrease copays or coinsurance rates in response to MHPAEA. Analyses of Milliman, Aon Hewitt, and BLS data suggest that these estimates are much lower than the actual percentage of plans that modified their copay and coinsurance rates during this time period, suggesting that some employers may not attribute changes in their health plan offerings during this time period to changes mandated by MHPAEA.

  1. What types of quantitative treatment limitations (QTLs) (e.g., day limits, visit limits) do group health plans use for MH/SUD, and are such limitations consistent with the MHPAEA standards?
  • Inpatient. In Milliman's sample of 2010 large group plans, nearly every plan offered by large employers used quantity and visit limits on MH inpatient benefits that conformed to MHPAEA standards. Inpatient SUD treatment was much more likely to be limited in ways that appeared to be inconsistent with MHPAEA. In 2010, almost 20% of these plans imposed more restrictive in-network SUD inpatient day limits than they did for medical/surgical benefits. In Aon Hewitt's sample of 2011 plan designs, fewer plans seemed to use unequal day and dollar limits for inpatient benefits. None imposed unequal dollar limits on MH/SUD inpatient treatment, and less than 8% had unequal day limits. The year-by-year analysis of the Aon Hewitt PDD (2009-2011) confirmed a dramatic decline in the proportion of plans with more restrictive inpatient MH/SUD benefits, with the greatest drop detected in the use of unequal day limits, from 50% in 2009 to 10% in 2010.

    Analyses of information from our limited sample of midsized employer data suggests a similar pattern. In 2008, 84% of midsized employers' plans in our sample used inpatient day limitations that were more restrictive for MH/SUD conditions than for medical/surgical conditions. By 2011, the percentage of plans in our sample offering more restrictive MH/SUD day limitations had dropped to 13%.

  • Outpatient. A similar pattern of increasing adherence to MHPAEA standards was found on the outpatient side. In Milliman's sample of 2010 plan designs, more than 50% of plans utilized unequal visit limits for MH/SUD services. In Aon Hewitt's sample of 2011 plan designs, less than 7% of the plans used unequal visit limits. Likewise, in Milliman's sample of 2010 plans, 30% of plans utilized unequal dollar limits. In Aon Hewitt's 2011 sample virtually all plans had equalized dollar limits for outpatient MH/SUD and medical care. The year-by-year analyses of the Aon Hewitt PDD confirm substantial reductions in QTLs for MH/SUD on the plans offered by large employers following the introduction of MHPAEA.

    MH/SUD benefits offered by midsized employers in our limited sample show a similar pattern to that of the large employer plans. In 2008, 81% used outpatient visit limitations that were more restrictive for MH/SUD than medical/surgical services. In 2011, only 13% of plans in our sample still used visit limitations that were more restrictive for MH/SUD than medical/surgical services.

    Large, representative surveys of employers corroborate our detailed analyses of benefits. The 2010 KFF/HRET found that more than one-fifth of all firms claimed to have eliminated limits in coverage in response to MHPAEA. In the 2010 Mercer Survey, 17% of firms claimed to have removed QTLs in response to MHPAEA.

  • Emergency Care and Prescriptions. Analyses of both 2010 and 2011 data suggests that 100% of participating plans offered emergency room (ER) and prescription benefits that appeared to conform to MHPAEA's treatment limitation requirements.

  1. What types of non-quantitative treatment limitations (NQTLs) are commonly used by plans and issuers for MH/SUD and how do these compare to NQTLs in place for medical/surgical benefits?

    Plan use of the six NQTL classifications outlined in the IFR (medical management standards; prescription drug formularies; network admission; usual, customary, and reasonable (UCR) payment amounts; step-therapy protocols; and requirements for patients to complete a course of treatment in order for payment to be provided) is almost universal. Our analysis indicated that plans frequently employ NQTLs for behavioral health conditions that are more restrictive than those used for other medical/surgical conditions. Analyses of large employer benefits in 2010 found numerous examples of NQTLs that were stricter for MH/SUD than for medical/surgical services. Some of the most common NQTLs include MH/SUD precertification requirements that were more stringent than medical/surgical requirements (28% of tested plans), medical necessity criteria that were applied to MH/SUD benefits but not to medical/surgical benefits (8% of tested plans), the use of routine retrospective reviews for MH/SUD services, and not for medical/surgical services, and reimbursement rates that were based on lower percentages of UCR rates for MH/SUD services than those provided for medical/surgical services. Mercer's 2010 employer survey found that 8% of employers reported adding or increasing their use of utilization management techniques in response to MHPAEA.

  2. Are group health plans and insurers using separate deductibles for MH/SUD benefits?

    Very few health plans offered by large employers used separate deductibles for MH/SUD and medical/surgical care after the IFR was released. In 2010, 3.2% of plans utilized separate deductibles for MH/SUD benefits in which MH/SUD out-of-pocket costs did not accumulate toward a single deductible combined with their medical/surgical benefits. In 2011, only 1.3% of plans in the Aon Hewitt sample employed separate deductibles for MH/SUD. Among midsized employers' plans in our limited sample, fewer than 3% appeared to use separate deductibles in the post-parity period (2009-2011).

  3. Have financial requirements and treatment limits on medical/surgical benefits become more restrictive in order to achieve parity, instead of requirements and limits for MH/SUD becoming less restrictive?

    We did not find any evidence that any plan had increased medical/surgical financial requirements in order to achieve parity.

  4. How many plans have eliminated MH/SUD treatment coverage altogether instead of complying with MHPAEA?

    There appears to be consistent evidence that a very small number of employers or health plans responded to MHPAEA by eliminating MH/SUD treatment coverage. In the Milliman dataset, no plan that offered MH/SUD benefits in 2009 failed to offer them in 2010/2011. The 2010 KFF/HRET and 2010 Mercer surveys report that fewer than 2% of firms having more than 50 workers, dropped coverage of MH/SUD benefits.

  5. How have plans responded to MHPAEA's requirements regarding the disclosure of medical necessity criteria and reasons for claim denials?

  • Each of the health plans representatives interviewed as part of this project reported using detailed medical necessity criteria that are applied to both MH/SUD conditions and medical/surgical conditions. A majority of respondents reported using standard criteria such as those provided by McKesson Interqual and the American Society of Addiction Medicine but several noted that they also use other criteria if required by specific employer contracts. Most health plan respondents reported that the scientific contents of the medical necessity criteria for MH/SUD coverage have not changed as a result of the parity law but some respondents reported that their application of the medical necessity criteria has been decreased to match their use for medical/surgical conditions. Overall, respondents reported that individual plan members and their health care providers can receive a copy of the plan's medical necessity criteria upon request. One company makes medical necessity criteria publicly available on its website.

    Officials from the companies interviewed as part of this project stated that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), not MHPAEA, has been driving changes in their claim denials procedures. The PPACA, DOL rules, and state laws explicitly dictate the content and timing of claim denial letters. These laws and rules apply to both behavioral health and other medical services. Many of the requirements precede MHPAEA. If a claim is denied, a letter is sent to the member and to the provider or facility. The letter explains the reason for the denial and may also cite the medical necessity criteria used for the decision.

aken as a whole, analyses presented in this report show that employers and health plans have made substantial changes to their plan designs in order to meet the standards set out by MHPAEA and the IFR. By 2011, ERISA-governed group health plans and health insurance offered in connection with group health plans seem to have removed most financial requirements that did not meet MHPAEA standards. Nearly all had eliminated the use of separate deductibles for MH/SUD treatment and medical/surgical treatment, although few were in use prior to the MHPAEA IFR. The number of plans that apply unequal inpatient day limits, outpatient visit limits or other QTLs for MH/SUD has dropped substantially, though a minority persist with limited, unequal MH/SUD benefits.

Although we document substantial changes since the enactment of MHPAEA, a substantial minority of employers and health plans were still offering benefits that were inconsistent with MHPAEA and the IFR in 2011. One out of five large employers required higher copays for in-network outpatient MH/SUD services than for equivalent medical/surgical treatments. Coinsurance was higher for in-network outpatient MH/SUD services than for medical/surgical services in 4% of large employers' plans. Among our limited sample of midsized plans, over 40% required greater cost-sharing for in-network outpatient MH/SUD office visits than for PCP office visits. And although the percentage of plans with more restrictive treatment limitations dropped substantially since the introduction of MHPAEA, a minority of plans in our post-parity sample, between 7% and 9%, still covered fewer MH and SUD inpatient days annually and fewer MH and SUD outpatient visits annually than they covered for medical/surgical conditions.

Assessing consistency with MHPAEA for NQTLs is difficult based on document reviews and self-report from employers and plans. Our analyses uncovered numerous areas that warrant more intensive investigation. We assessed NQTLs through a detailed review of plan documents and responses from an extensive questionnaire administered by Aon Hewitt to plans' MH/SUD and medical/surgical vendors. For example, in 2010, nearly three in ten plans used more stringent precertification and utilization management controls for MH/SUD than for medical/surgical conditions. Network management processes were inconsistent, with different standards and processes for including MH/SUD providers in plans' network than were used for medical/surgical providers. MH/SUD provider reimbursement rates were sometimes found to be set at a lower percentage of prevailing community rates than comparable medical/surgical rates. Rates were sometimes determined by the plan based on its internal data, but set medical/surgical reimbursement rates from external, multi-payer databases.

Although we were able to identify areas where the application of NQTLs appeared to be inconsistent with the IFR, it is likely that our reliance on these limited sources of information drawn primarily from large employers' health plans resulted in a significant under-identification of problematic NQTLs. A careful, in-depth and longitudinal monitoring of plans' NQTL policies and practices would likely turn up correctable problems that our analysis could not detect. For example, the California Department of Mental Health's processes for monitoring plans' compliance with California's Mental Health Parity Act included onsite surveys, reviews of claims files, utilization review files, and internal management and performance reports. California was able to detect patterns in practice that could not be identified from the kind of reviews undertaken in the current report: plans incorrectly denying coverage for ER visits; plans failing to monitor whether beneficiaries had reasonable access to after-hours services; and plans failing to include required information in claim denial letters.5

Some concerns about the impact of MHPAEA were not borne out in our analyses. A very small proportion of employers, between 1% and 2%, claimed to have dropped or were planning to drop coverage for MH/SUD, or for specific MH/SUD diagnoses as a result of MHPAEA. No employers reduced medical/surgical benefits to comply with parity. A very small percentage excluded specific treatments, and most of those were for learning disabilities, developmental delays, and court-ordered services. We did not detect any movement to exclude residential or intensive outpatient services.