The Health and Human Services Department (HHS) as well as the Labor and Treasury Departments jointly released a final rule on Friday that raises the level of parity between mental health benefits and medical benefits in health plans. HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement that the “historic expansion will help make [mental health] treatment more affordable and accessible.”

The rule has been issued five years after the original law, the 2008 Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (MHPAEA), was passed, and more than 50 years after former President John F. Kennedy first issued a plan to address mental health conditions. Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman, president of the American Psychiatric Association, told NBC News that the rule was “anxiously and long awaited. Everything we’ve heard gives us a lot of encouragement.”

An online fact sheet notes some of the key changes made by the new rule, such as requiring that co-payments and deductibles for mental health benefits match those for medical and surgical benefits. A group health plan must also provide out-of-network mental health and substance use disorder (SUD) benefits if it includes medical/surgical benefits. The rule will also guarantee equal treatment for residential and outpatient care for mental health patients.

Several leaders have emphasized the importance of increasing mental health care in the U.S., such as former congressman Patrick Kennedy, who toured the nation in October raising awareness about the severity of mental health issues and aiming to remove stigma surrounding mental illness. “I see this not only as a medical issue, where we need to treat the brain like any other organ in the body, I see this as a civil rights issue,” Kennedy told a Rhode Island audience last month. In a press release, the HHS noted that increasing parity between mental health services and medical treatment is meant to raise awareness about mental illness and remove the stigma associated with it. “[M]ental illness should no longer be treated by our society – or covered by insurance companies – differently from other illnesses,” the HHS stated in the press release.

The mental health parity act is also tied to gun violence. The Obama administration had promised to make efforts to reduce gun violence in the nation, and by issuing the mental health parity rule, it has completed the 23 executive actions that were included in the President’s gun violence plan. Increasing access to affordable mental health services was part of the plan, which also included strengthening the background check system to keep “guns out of the wrong hands,” enhancing law enforcement, stopping the freeze on gun violence research, and making schools safer.

“This final rule breaks down barriers that stand in the way of treatment and recovery services for millions of Americans,” HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement. “Building on these rules, the Affordable Care Act is expanding mental health and substance use disorder benefits and parity protections to 62 million Americans.”