Mandate to require insurance coverage of autism treatment hits Utah Legislature, inspires families

Published: Thursday, Feb. 7 2013 8:00 p.m. MST

SB55 carries a $1.3 million fiscal note that would cover the costs of extending coverage to state employees, public education and members of the state's Children's Health Insurance Plan. The amount is projected to increase to $1.85 million in 2015.

Lawmakers last year approved a pilot study of similar treatment options for about 300 participants throughout Utah. Results from the study are not expected until later this year.

Dr. Paul Carbone, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah who specializes in autism research, said, "there is good data that the brain can be rewired during those early years," showing important development gains and a decrease in maladaptive behaviors that often overwhelm families with autism.

"Starting early is better," he said.

The Utah Medical Association and many parents of autistic children expressed support of the bill, saying it is time to address the problem in Utah.

At least three other states are considering similar legislation, and 32 have already adopted some rule mandating coverage for treatment of autism spectrum disorder. As Utah lawmakers didn't pass the mandate prior to federal deadlines, however, the state would be responsible to fund the portion of the premium increase for those who qualify for a premium tax subsidy mentioned in the Affordable Care Act.

And if SB55 passes, about 30 percent of the population is covered by insurance plans that would be subject to it.

Representatives from the health insurance industry said the bill is premature.

"If even one child utilized and received the maximum benefit, it would dramatically increase premiums," said Travis Wood, a lobbyist and part-time executive director of Utah Health Plans. He projects premium increases across the board for fully insured Utahns if the bill passes.

"As an individual, my heart bleeds for this, but this is not the answer for a very complex problem," Wood said.

Mirella Peterson, advocacy chairwoman for the local Autism Speaks chapter and a mother to a 6-year-old boy with autism, said treatment has worked wonders for her son.

"He was in the first percentile for receptive language and understood very little, but through treatment, he's now average and is mainstreamed into kindergarten," she said. "He's a twin, and you can't tell the difference."

Others said trying to make ends meet without insurance coverage for autism-related care is crippling their families.

"Our life is about surviving," said Jake Smith, of North Salt Lake. He has multiple children with autism and was denied Medicaid coverage because his income, earned by working three jobs, was too high.

"We were told to have another child or take a paycut," Smith said, adding that the family ultimately filed for bankruptcy. Fortunately, he said, his children were accepted into the state's pilot program last month. He'd like to be able to continue treatment when the program expires later this year.

"If we embrace this therapy, it will help thousands of children in the state of Utah," Shiozawa said. "We have an opportunity to help thousands. We have an opportunity to do the right thing."

The committee gave the bill five favorable votes and two dissenting, and it moves to the full body of the Senate for further discussion.

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said he doesn't think SB55 is ready to become a law, and various tweaks involving an out for insurance companies if the child is not responding to treatment, as well as attention to actual costs, need to be made to earn his approval in the end.

Reps. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, and David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, voted against the bill, citing cost concerns.

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