Ravell Call, Deseret News
Treatment for autism spectrum disorders would be covered for Salt Lake County employees' children under a budget proposal by Mayor Ben McAdams. Expanding the employees' health care coverage requires the approval of the Salt Lake County Council.

SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams has proposed to expand county employees' health care coverage to include treatment for children with autism spectrum disorders.

“This is not only the right thing to do for the families of county employees, it will also save the county money in the long run,” McAdams said during at a news conference in his office Monday afternoon.

The plan, part of McAdams’ proposed budget for 2014, would cost about $200,000 and is subject to the approval of the Salt Lake County Council.

“What is happening today is nothing short of a miracle,” said Lt. Shanda Gonzalez, an employee of the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office and the mother of an autistic child.

Gonzalez’s 12-year-old daughter was diagnosed with autism when she was 6. The treatment she has received thus far has been highly effective, Gonzalez said.

“She has come so far. She is an amazing girl. I’m thrilled to see where she will go in the future,” said Gonzalez, who has worked for the county for 16 years.

It is not known how many county employees have children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, but McAdams said the number may be 15 to 20. The county has about 4,000 full- and part-time merit employees. An exact figure will not be available until employees seek coverage.

Under the proposal, services for children from birth to age 9 would be covered up to $36,000 a year, while the coverage for children ages 10-18 would be $15,000 a year. If the proposal is adopted by the council as part of the county’s budget, the coverage would start April 1.

Council Chairman Steve DeBry said the council is in the process of reviewing McAdams’ overall budget recommendations and it has made no decision whether to add coverage of autism treatment to county employees’ health insurance plan.

“I think it’s admirable what he’s doing and it’s commendable to a point, but at what cost? I don’t know enough about it at this point to say I’m a proponent or an opponent against it. If it’s going to incur more tax dollars and up premiums, I would probably choose to say I’m not really for it,” DeBry said.

The information he had received from McAdams’ office was that the expanded coverage “probably wouldn’t” result in increased costs.

“Well, probably isn’t good enough for me,” DeBry said.

In Utah, 1 in 47 children has autism, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published in 2012.

The study also found that rates of autism jumped 157 percent in Utah from 2002 to 2008, while prevalence of the developmental disorders increased 78 percent nationwide for the same time period.

Nationally, an estimated 1 in 88 children has autism, an all-time high, the study found.

Medical research has not determined the cause of autism, but advocates say there are a number of proven, evidence-based treatments to help children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, which are characterized by impairments in social interaction, communication and/or repetitive, restricted and stereotyped patterns of behavior.

Christine Passey, whose daughter has autism, said the proposal is “a really big deal for families with children with autism.”

Eighty percent to 90 percent of children who receive treatment “make significant improvement,” Passey said.

After three years of therapy, her daughter went from being unable to express affection to saying, “‘I love you.’ She did that because of therapy,” Passey said.

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But the treatments are expensive, said Cheryl Smith of the Autism Council of Utah. Some parents literally risk losing their homes or are unable to save for college for their other children to pay out of pocket for autism treatment.

“Essentially, they mortgage their entire futures,” Smith said.

McAdams said another reason to provide the coverage is to "lead by example." Once the county expands its coverage, other employers may follow suit, he said.

DeBry said the County Council will spend the next few weeks reviewing the executive branch's $870 million proposed budget before adopting a final plan in mid-December.

Email: marjorie@deseretnews.com