By Laurie Bishop

Nationally, 33,000 Americans died in 2015 from an opioid overdose – that's close to the number of casualties caused by car accidents. Montana has seen a 475 percent increase in heroin found during arrests since 2013, and meth usage is rising again. Patients who struggle with substance abuse and mental illnesses rely heavily on mental health care, often to survive.

Rep. Laurie Bishop
Rep. Laurie Bishop

In 2015, Montana had the third highest suicide rate in the nation. Based on Montana DPHHS information, 65 percent of suicides between January 2014 and March 2016 had multiple substances in the body (such as opioids and alcohol).

We must continue to address mental health needs if we want to reduce substance abuse and suicide rates.

This year, the Montana Legislature stepped up and provided protections for those in need of mental health care. House Bill 142, the Montana Mental Health Parity Act, will require insurance companies to cover mental health services on par with physical health.

This means deductibles, copayments and out-of-pocket costs for mental health must be equal to those for physical health. For instance, if a patient requires a prescription for bipolar depression, the insurance company must cover the drug as it would high blood pressure medicine.

Access to mental and behavioral health care can save lives, and this legislation can help Montanans struggling receive critical care.

The impact of House Bill 142 can seem small at first blush - this new Montana law reflects the practice that should already be taking place under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).  However, in the last few months, congressional efforts to repeal and replace the ACA are jeopardizing mental health parity, making the need for a Montana solution that takes care of Montanans more relevant than ever.

Furthermore, while the Montana Legislature is passing this key piece of legislation to address mental health and substance use disorders, congressional leadership in Washington, D.C., continues to threaten another critical element that assures access to mental health care - Medicaid expansion.

In Montana, more than 71,000 low-income adults have gained coverage through Medicaid expansion. They now join the 52,473 Montanans who have purchased coverage through the Marketplace with the help of the ACA’s tax credits and subsidies.

The failed ACA repeal bill would have ended Montana’s Medicaid expansion and shifted $3 billion in costs to Montana over the next 10 years. This would put our state-level expansion on the chopping block and cause thousands of Montanans to lose their healthcare coverage.

Without this assistance, thousands would go unserved. Without this assistance, low-income workers would struggle even more to pay for addiction treatment and mental health services on their own.

Montana should be proud of the bipartisan work done to address mental health and expand access to health care, including life-saving substance use disorder treatment. Our work is not yet done. We must hold Congress accountable and demand that they protect health coverage for tens of thousands of Montanans.

With an opioid epidemic destroying lives and a mental health crisis ripping apart families, it is essential people receive the care they need. Too many lives are at stake for us to stand idly by and risk going backwards.

Laurie Bishop is a Democrat who represents Livingston in the Montana House of Representatives.