New Jersey Assembly committee has advanced legislation that would expand mental health insurance coverage.

The bill would require the State Health Benefits Plan and the School Employees Health Program to provide the same level of coverage for mental illnesses as physical ailments. Private plans already have that parity.

Assembly Health Committee chairman Herb Conaway says the mental health coverage provided by the public employees plans is not adequate.

"Very often, these are carved-out services. There are more limits," said Conaway, who is a physician. "There are more hurdles to jump through to get them.

"And because of the payment system, very often when you need to see a psychiatric or a mental-health provider, that particular provider is not there taking new patients," he said during a Monday hearing.

Public employee plans covering about 800,000 subscribers now limit payments for certain disorders, said Dudley Burdge of the Communications Workers of America.

"You're talking about cops, teachers, that could use those services particularly in post-traumatic stress, and with eating disorders, we're talking about what is the most deadly mental health affliction," Burdge said. "And this would end the visit limitations for those."

The measure would also prevent insurers from applying different co-payments, deductibles or benefit limits for alcoholism and substance abuse treatment.

The bill is awaiting action by the full Assembly. The Senate passed it March.