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Mental health bill passed by Senate

Insurers would be forced to cover certain mental health care costs if a bill passed by the Senate Thursday becomes law.

"We're trying to bring Florida into the 21st century in terms of mental health coverage," said Sen. John Grant, R-Tampa, the sponsor of the bill.

Requiring HMOs and other providers to cover mental health costs has been a goal of lawmakers for five years. The powerful insurance lobby has held up the measure in the past but worked with Grant to form a proposal this year.

Supporters of the bill, which now awaits House consideration, said access to mental health is long overdue. Opponents said it would drive up the cost of health care for everyone.

Debate broke out as several senators attempted to amend the bill to make other medical treatments mandatory, including one by Sen. Pat Thomas, D-Quincy, that would include bone marrow transplants. Thomas successfully battled cancer last year.

As his amendment was rejected, Thomas accused Grant of at one time being "in bed" with the insurance industry and now "standing up like a hypocrite."

Later, Grant said he accepted an apology for the harsh words, even though Thomas didn't make one. "I know you didn't mean that," Grant said. "I consider you my friend and my mentor."

Thomas conceded that if he was going to call Grant a hypocrite, "I should have done it in private."

There was a roar of laughter in the Senate, and the two men shook hands and hugged.

The bill covers serious mental health issues but exempts businesses with less than 50 employees. The House has sent the Senate a similar bill, although it is considered less attractive because it doesn't excuse small employers.

_ Times staff writer Diane Rado contributed to this report.