LANSING, Mich. — Insurance companies will have to offer coverage for autism treatments six months from now, a move the parent of one autistic boy said will make a huge difference to families struggling to pay for their children's treatment.
"This legislation means the world to us and to thousands of other families across the state of Michigan," said Scott Koenigsknecht of Fowler, who attended a bill-signing ceremony at the official governor's residence Wednesday with 7-year-old Cooper and the rest of his family. "The beauty of this legislation is ... no family will have ever to leave a doctor's appointment without some kind of hope."
Diagnosed with autism at age 2-1/2, Cooper now is attending 1st grade with the help of a full-time aide, and he's functioning at a higher level than he would have without treatment, his father said.
As the Montcalm Area Intermediate School District superintendent, Koenigsknecht said Michigan school districts pay more than $150 million a year to educate children with autism, an amount that could decrease if more families get insurance to cover treatment.
Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, whose daughter, Reagan, has been diagnosed with autism, signed the measures into law Wednesday with Reagan standing nearby. Gov. Rick Snyder is visiting Michigan National Guard troops in Afghanistan, so Calley was able to sign the legislation he had pushed unsuccessfully for so long.
Lawmakers gave final approval to the measures last month, and both Republicans and Democrats who worked on the legislation said it was the plight of families trying to pay for their children's treatment that made the legislation so critical.
"When things are personal, you work a lot harder," said Democratic Sen. Rebekah Warren of Ann Arbor.
Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, a Monroe Republican who has been a state lawmaker for nearly a dozen years, called the effort "the single best piece of bipartisan work I've seen in my career."
Richardville said he had to find a bill that would not be an unfunded mandate on employers while still helping families. His solution was to set up a fund to help reimburse some companies for paid claims related to diagnosis and treatment of autism.
Some mental health advocates said the measure should have required coverage for all mental health issues children face, including depression. It's possible more children may be diagnosed with autism because that's the only ailment the legislation covers.
Calley said that's unlikely, however.
The new law's "very, very high standards would make that nearly impossible," he said. He recognized other parents may be disappointed with the law deals only with autism, but said additional coverage is possible down the road.
"Social change is a marathon, not a sprint," he said. "This is a major step forward."
It's not yet known how much money would be included for what supporters call an autism coverage incentive fund, although some Republicans have estimated it could cost around $15 million in its first year. The legislation wouldn't apply to organizations that self-insure, such as some large companies.
A majority of states already have laws aimed at requiring insurance companies to cover some types of autism therapies.
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