At the federal government's insistence, employers are owning up to what many workers have been saying for years: Mental health and substance abuse issues are medical conditions that should be covered by insurance like any other ailment.

Under the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, passed in 2008 but only now making its way into the workplace, treatment limits for substance abuse and mental health conditions such as depression are being lifted. The change, experts say, should benefit everyone in the workplace.

"Getting people help will make the workplace a better environment," said Chet Taranowski, employee assistance coordinator at Aon Corp. in Chicago.

While mental health parity has been in the works for decades, loopholes allowed limitations on treatment for mental health and substance abuse not imposed on other medical conditions. That meant addicted workers who wanted help often couldn't afford the treatment necessary for a full recovery. But the new act should change that.

By removing what some advocates say are discriminatory insurance practices that have relegated mental health and substance abuse to second-class status, experts hope the stigma surrounding those issues disappears as well.

"It's not weak people" who suffer from mental health and substance abuse issues, Taranowski said. "It's you and me, your neighbor, your son, your wife."

About 20 percent of the population will have a major depressive disorder sometime during their lifetime, while others will suffer from anxiety or bipolar or other disorders, Taranowski said.

While some predict that the extended coverage could lead to unnecessary or excessive treatment, pushing up the cost of health care, others expect it to save money by reducing worker turnover.

"People with complex problems were burning out their health plan benefits," Taranowski said. Now, he said, "people will actually get the help they need."

Mike Screens is a recovering alcoholic and drug addict who has been sober for more than five years.

"A lot of times people look down on people who are messed up, but then they tell them, 'If you don't have insurance, it's going to cost you $60,000 to get treatment,'" Screens said. "What addict has that kind of money?"

Screens sought treatment when he feared his job was on the line.

"I'd show up to work for a week, then blow off two or three days," he said. "I couldn't function any more. I felt like the walking dead."

His insurance covered a 30-day outpatient program, and he made it work for him. Still, Screens said he knows others without substance abuse coverage who haven't been able to afford treatment.

The increased insurance cost associated with the parity act is expected to be less than 1 percent.

But as employers grapple with premium increases of 8 percent to 12 percent a year, anything more is a burden, said John Foley, partner at Benefit Consulting Group in Northfield.

"Most employers are accepting it grudgingly, but not enthusiastically," Foley said, "with the understanding that it's driving up the cost of their insurance, but they can't do anything about it."

However, the law allows companies with self-funded plans to drop mental health coverage altogether, an option some are choosing to save money, said Ken Olson, division president at Horton Group, a benefits provider based in Orland Park. He estimates less than 10 percent of the firm's self-funded clients have done so.