By Joseph A. Rogers

A bill pending in Congress has real life-and-death consequences for many Pennsylvanians: It would end insurance discrimination based on mental illness. Yet despite widespread agreement among federal lawmakers concerning the critical need for this legislation, there is a risk that it will not come to a vote this year because other, more divisive issues have caused a traffic jam in the calendar.

I have a mental illness - an experience I share with tens of thousands of other Americans - and there have been many times that my life was at risk because of insurance-company discrimination. The parity legislation would fix that.

The biggest problem is the arbitrary limits on my mental-health coverage, even though, since 1980, I have worked for employers who provided some of the best private insurance available.

Unlike coverage of my physical health, any psychiatric hospitalization I need is artificially capped. Just getting stabilized on a new medication (because my medication has stopped working) can take longer than the insurance company allows. If it takes one day more, I will find myself on the street, having to deal with this problem on my own.

The fight to mandate parity between coverage of mental and physical illnesses got an early start this year when U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D., R.I.), who introduced the parity bill pending in the House, came to Pennsylvania as part of the cross-country Campaign to Insure Mental Health and Addiction Equity.

At a hearing in Delaware County, Kennedy and U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak (D., Pa.) heard riveting testimony from witness after witness that widespread insurance practices limit access to needed mental-health treatment, with dire consequences.

One witness talked about how her health insurance fully covered the too-many emergency-room visits to sew up her daughter's slit wrists and to pump her stomach. It also covered the cost of ambulance rides and stays in the intensive-care unit for the times she and her husband were not sure that their daughter would make it. But when it came to the services of the doctors specially trained to treat her daughter's mental illness or the specialized hospitalization that she desperately needed, the coverage was severely limited.

Since the hearing in February, legislation that would outlaw discriminatory insurance practices and require equitable mental-health coverage has moved steadily toward the president's desk. In September, the Senate unanimously passed a parity bill. Its long list of supporters includes, for the first time, long-standing parity opponents - trade associations representing business and insurance. In the House, three committees have adopted a similar bill. Yet the momentum seems to have slowed.

The time is now for America to wake up to the fact that mental illnesses are just as real as diabetes or heart disease and deserve to be treated as such. Limits on treatment of those diseases would not be tolerated. Yet thousands of individuals and families spend their life savings, run up credit-card debt, and plead with providers to wait patiently for payment because of these discriminatory insurance practices. It is time to end this two-tiered system.

Congress has studied the issue for nearly a decade. It has just a few weeks to act on this legislation. It's time for Senate and House leaders to move mental-health parity legislation from life support to their "must-pass" list, and get it done.

Joseph A. Rogers is president for policy and advocacy at the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania, based in Philadelphia.