The Proposed MHPAEA Regulations’ ‘Meaning of Terms’ Part One: Benefits

By on September 26, 2023
This post continues our investigation of proposed regulations under the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (MHPAEA) issued by the US Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services and the Treasury (the Departments). Our previous MHPAEA content is available here.

The purpose of MHPAEA is to ensure that participants and beneficiaries in a group health plan or in group health insurance coverage that includes mental health or substance use disorder benefits are not subject to greater restrictions when seeking these benefits than when they seek medical/surgical benefits under the terms of the plan or coverage. Thus, how the terms “medical or surgical benefits,” “mental health benefits” and “substance use disorder benefits” are defined is of paramount importance. Under current law, any condition defined by the plan or coverage as being or as not being a medical/surgical condition, mental health condition or substance use disorder, respectively, must be defined to be consistent with generally recognized independent standards of current medical practice. These standards include the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the most current version of the International Classification of Diseases or state guidelines.

In the preamble to the proposed regulations, the Departments cite two problems with the existing definitions:

  • There appears to be some confusion about what it means for a definition of a mental health condition or substance use disorder to be ‘‘consistent with’’ generally recognized independent standards of current medical practice.
  • Plans and issuers sometimes rely on state law standards that may not be applicable to the plan or coverage at issue to classify a condition as medical or surgical in nature, which is more properly treated as a mental health or substance use disorder benefit. For example, a self-funded plan may seek to rely on state insurance law definition despite the fact that state insurance does not apply to self-funded plans.

According to the Departments, some plans had classified applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy for the treatment of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as a medical or surgical benefit. Noting that ABA therapy is now considered one of the primary treatments for children with ASD, the proposed regulations make clear that ASD is a mental health condition. The Departments also point to nutrition counseling as one of the primary treatments for eating disorders, which Congress previously identified as mental health conditions in the 21st Century Cures Act.

What constitutes medical or surgical benefits, mental health benefits and substance use disorder benefits is important both for substantive compliance and for purposes of preparing the nonquantitative treatment limitation (NQTL) comparative analyses. Among other things, comparative analyses must identify “all mental health or substance use disorder benefits and medical/surgical benefits to which the [NQTL] applies,” including a list of which benefits are considered mental health or substance use disorder benefits and which benefits are considered medical/surgical benefits.

Alden Bianchi
Alden J. Bianchi is an experienced Employee Benefits and Executive Compensation lawyer who advises corporate, not-for-profit, governmental and individual clients on a broad range of executive compensation and employee benefits matters, including qualified and non-qualified retirement plans, health and welfare plans. Read Alden Bianchi's full bio.




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