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Bush Calls on Congress to Require Mental Illness Coverage in Plans

By Dana Milbank

President Bush Monday called for legislation this year requiring employer health plans to treat mental illness like other ailments, as he launched a two-day western swing devoted in equal parts to his “compassionate conservative” agenda and to raising some $4.5 million in cash for Republican candidates.

The White House failed in the days before Monday’s event to reach agreement with congressional lawmakers on a bill requiring employers to provide equivalent health insurance coverage for mental and other illnesses, but officials said talks continue and an agreement is expected in coming weeks. Bush called Monday for legislation providing “full mental health parity” this year.

“Mental disability is not a scandal -- it is an illness,” Bush said to applause from psychiatrists and others here at the University of New Mexico. “And like physical illness, it is treatable.” He called for giving “all Americans who suffer from mental illness the treatment, and the respect, they deserve.” Bush praised the efforts of hometown Sen. Pete V. Domenici, R-N.M., who has championed the cause despite opposition from conservative Republicans in the House.

Though providing few specifics -- Bush alternated between references to covering “all” people with mental illness and treating “serious mental illness,” the greatest area of disagreement in the ongoing negotiations -- the president made clear that the subject would become a key part of his proposals to help the poor and needy.

Bush will seek to build his credentials as a “compassionate” leader Tuesday in San Jose, when he delivers a broad speech outlining his governmental philosophy. Aides said he will seek to “connect the dots” between his domestic policies on education and poverty with his policies on international aid and development. “We are an activist government, but activist in a very focused way,” said a senior Bush aide.