From AP REPORTS

AUSTIN - Health insurance plans that cover mental illnesses would have to provide benefits that are equal to those for other diseases under a bill the Texas Senate approved Thursday.

Insurance companies frequently charge higher deductibles and co-payments for the treatment of mental illnesses and set lower caps on hospital stays or doctors visits, Sen. Rodney Ellis said.

“This is not only discriminatory but it sends a message that mental illnesses are less important than other illnesses,” said Ellis, a Democrat from Houston who sponsored the measure.

The debate was marked by a heated exchange between Ellis and Sen. Dan Patrick, a conservative freshman lawmaker who is a radio talk show host in Houston.

Patrick accused Ellis of being disingenuous for bringing the bill up for debate before they could finish negotiations over an amendment he wanted to add. Ellis responded by accusing Patrick of trying to gut his bill while pretending to support it.

The Senate ultimately sent the bill to the House by a 28-3 vote.

Under the legislation, plans that already cover mental illnesses would be barred from establishing co-payments or treatment limitations that are different from those for other medical or surgical conditions.

Steroid testing

A dispute over how to pay for steroid testing of Texas public high school athletes has stalled the bill in the final weeks of the legislative session.

Although House and Senate lawmakers promise a testing program will be approved, a key senator has branded as a “ticket tax” the House plan to pay for the program with a 25-cent fee on tickets to basketball and football games.

The House sponsor, however, says the fee is so small most people wouldn't object and noted it could raise more money for testing than the Senate is calling for.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has made the testing program one of his top priorities for the session. The Senate plan would spend $4 million each year, with the money coming from the state budget.

Rep. Dan Flynn, the Van Republican who filed the bill in the House, said his research shows the 25-cent ticket fee could raise $4.8 million per year and possibly allow the state to test even more than the targeted 22,000 students.

“There’s no reason to put a tax on people who go” to games, Dewhurst said. “We’ll work it out. It’s a good bill and at the end of the day, it’s going to save lives.”

Feeling lucky?

Bars, nightclubs and other businesses that serve alcohol would be allowed to sell lottery tickets under a bill the House tentatively approved late Thursday.

The bill by Rep. Chente Quintanilla, D-El Paso, would strike a provision in state law that prohibits locations with alcoholic beverage permits from selling the tickets.

Lottery proceeds help fund public education. Budget analysts have estimated changing the law would raise more than $64 million for schools over the next five years.

The measure has to receive final approval in the House before it can be sent to the Senate.

Sweet-tasting

medicine

The Senate passed a bill Thursday clarifying a state law allowing pharmacists to add flavoring to children's liquid medicine, something already done by many pharmacies “to make the medicine go down.”

“This is a really sweet bill,” said the sponsor, Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, a San Antonio Democrat. She said the legislation clarifies some language in a law passed in the last regular session.

May the force be with you

Sen. Tommy Williams’ feelings didn’t seem too hurt by a Houston Chronicle editorial calling him the “prince of darkness” for his stance on several freedom of information bills.

The Republican from The Woodlands showed up on the Senate floor dressed as Darth Vader, complete with the hefty black helmet and cape.

He stuck around long enough for a few Star Wars jokes before leaving the floor to change.