ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — While the #StopTheStigma hashtag has been used to help break down the stigma surrounding mental illness, that stigma still persists across many segments of society.

For instance, while federal law mandates that health insurance providers cover mental health and substance abuse disorders to the same extent as any other health benefit, many insurance providers still find ways to short-change coverage of mental health services.

“The insurance companies are really putting a lot of pressure on hospitals and treatment providers that, ‘listen, we’re not paying for these services so, you either find people who can pay or you’re just not going to be covered’,” said Natasha A. Pierre, vice president of NAMI Hillsborough (a National Alliance on Mental Illness affiliate). “The reason why we’re seeing so many repeat Baker Acts and repeat visits to psychiatric hospitals is we’re not taking care of it the first time it happens. If people got the treatment, the help, the support they needed the first time around, there wouldn’t be as high a rate of people returning to hospitals and returning to rehabs and Baker Acts, we just wouldn’t see it.”

Not only that, but Pierre says the state of Florida is failing to enforce the federal law that demands equal coverage for mental health services.

“This is called ‘parity’ in insurance coverage. But it is up to each state’s insurance commissioner to enforce the federal parity law,” a NAMI Hillsborough handout on mental health discrimination states. “So far, Florida’s Office of Insurance Regulation (OIR) has not taken the necessary steps to make discrimination in mental health insurance coverage a thing of the past. Moreover, an outdated Florida law (Florida Statute 627.668) currently makes discrimination in mental health insurance coverage legal in Florida. This statute directly conflicts with the federal laws and is likely unconstitutional.”

"Right now in the state of Florida and in many states across the country, that’s not being enforced. It’s simply not being enforced," said Pierre. "So, I can go to a doctor three, four times a week if I want to, but when it comes to mental health there’s a limit to how many times I can see that therapist.”

The Florida Office of Insurance Regulation responded with this statement emailed to 10News:

“The Office of Insurance Regulation (OIR) has taken numerous, proactive steps to strengthen its process with regards to this issue. Earlier this year, OIR welcomed a firm that specializes in mental health investigations to provide mandatory training to OIR staff to educate on how to spot mental parity issues in contracts and claims. As a result, OIR updated its review processes for individual and group health insurance policies and contracts for compliance with the federal Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equality Act (MHPAEA). Now as part of the OIR form review process, every insurer and HMO in the individual and small group market must sign an affidavit attesting that the carriers are in compliance with MHPAEA. Any violations of MHPAEA are communicated to the insurer or HMO and if the insurer or HMO fails to correct the issue, the violation is referred as a possible violation of federal law. OIR continues to evaluate its processes and include critical mental parity messaging within its notices to the industry.

With regards to the issue of discrimination, please note, discrimination in mental health insurance is not legal in Florida, per federal law. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) extended MHPAEA parity requirements to individual and small group health plans and made mental health and substance use disorder benefits an essential health benefit that is required to be covered by individual and small group health plans.”

NAMI Hillsborough will host its 4th annual Strides Run/Walk & Health Fair on Saturday, November 16th at USF, an event designed to help end the stigma surrounding mental illness.

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