Long-needed federal action to improve treatment for mental illness and substance use disorders is on its way, as part of President Obama’s four point plan to protect children and reduce gun violence. The biggest step forward will be finalizing federal rules on the 2008 Parity Act. The Act requires most health plans that cover mental health and substance use disorders to do so at the same level as physical health if behavioral health benefits are offered. President Obama also promised that health insurance Exchange regulations are coming very soon that will make clear what behavioral health services must be included in health insurance plans sold through the Exchanges, and how the parity rules apply. This is a victory for all people who need treatment for these conditions.

These actions are in response to the horrific tragedy in Newtown, CT and other mass shootings that have become all too common. They fall under one of four major points of the president’s plan, “Increasing access to mental health services,” and the president can implement them quickly.

Some other proposals under this category require new funds from Congress, including mental illness screening and training professionals. President Obama has proposed creating a new project that would reach 750,000 young people through training teachers to detect mental illness and then referring those in need of treatment to the appropriate services, special state-based outreach for 16-25 year olds, and training 5,000 additional mental health professionals to serve students and young adults.

What’s more, the Administration released a letter to state officials clarifying the scope of mental health services Medicaid plans must offer. Before the Affordable Care Act (ACA), traditional fee-for-service Medicaid plans were not bound by the 2008 Parity Act, although important services that include behavioral health, especially EPSDT, were required. But in 2014, most new Medicaid enrollees will be covered by parity, a major protection for consumers. Medicaid managed care plans were included in the 2008 Parity Act yet no regulations exist to enforce these provisions. President Obama’s plan will fix that. Additionally, HHS Secretary Sebelius and Education Secretary Duncan will launch a national dialogue about mental illness among young people.

Advocates must push the administration to follow through soon on these promises and ensure the promised regulations meet the needs of consumers. President Obama should be commended for his movement on issues related to behavioral health. His plan will give states the tools they need to ensure millions will have access to these services to reduce suffering and prevent future tragedies.

–Tom Emswiler, Policy Analyst