(CBS News) WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration issued new rules Friday that will improve access to mental health care for 62 million Americans. It's an idea the president said he would impose himself by executive order when Congress declined to pass gun legislation.
The move comes after the movie theater massacre in Colorado that left 12 dead; the shootings in Newtown, Conn., that killed 27; the Washington Navy Yard attack, in which 12 died; and the shooting at Los Angeles International Airport one week ago. Eighty-eight dead in 12 mass shootings in just over a year.
Mental health professionals have sought this change for decades, both to improve treatment and to lift a long-standing stigma. Friday's announcement means insurance companies now must provide the same benefit coverage for illnesses of the mind they have long provided for every other kind of illness.
In Atlanta Friday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius described a new world for those suffering from mental illness or substance abuse.
"Imagine what it would mean if people felt as comfortable saying they were going for counseling as they do saying they're going for a flu shot or physical therapy," Sebelius said.
Patients with broken bones or heart attack symptoms are routinely admitted to emergency rooms and insurers are contacted later. Before Friday, patients reporting severe depression or suicidal tendencies often had to be approved by insurance companies before they were admitted. Treatment could be delayed or coverage denied. Now, that disparity will no longer exist.
The new rules are a result of Obamacare and a 2008 law that called for mental health parity. They are also the last of 23 executive actions to reduce gun violence that President Obama took when Congress voted against stricter gun control legislation after the Sandy Hook school shooting.
The new rules also forbid insurers from denying coverage for out-of-state mental illness or substance abuse treatment. This will allow patients to travel for care in the same way patients suffering from cancer or other ailments have been able to for years.
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