Missouri Senate passes mandate for some insurers to cover autism

Friday, April 24, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The Missouri Senate on Thursday passed legislation requiring some insurers to provide coverage for treating autistic children.

The legislation would require group health insurance plans to cover the diagnosis and treatment of autism for children younger than 18, beginning in 2010.

It specifically would require coverage for a costly type of treatment known as "applied behavioral analysis," which some parents say is particularly helpful for their autistic children. Insurers would have to cover up to $55,000 annually for such treatment, but only for children younger than 15.

The Senate passed the bill 29-2. The bill now goes to the House, which has yet to debate its own version of the autism insurance legislation.

House Speaker Ron Richard, R-Joplin, has said he wants a consensus on the legislation before bringing it up for debate.

Behavior therapy for autism can cost up to $50,000 a year per child.

Supporters have made several trips to the Capitol to lobby for the bill, which they say would keep them from taking on loads of debt to treat their autistic children.

Sen. Eric Schmitt's son, Stephen, has autism. In Senate debate last month, Schmitt made an impassioned speech in support of the bill, noting that his family can pay for autism coverage but that many others cannot.

"He's four and a half and nonverbal, and that's tough to deal with," said Schmitt, R-Glendale. "I live with the hope that someday Stephen will be able to say, 'I love you back."'

Supporters point to an actuarial study conducted by an autism advocacy group that said the bill would increase insurance premiums by less than 1 percent.

But the insurance industry has said the legislation could cause a greater than 3 percent premium increase.

The bill requires coverage under most small-and-large group insurance plans, except those regulated by the federal government. Individual health care plans would have to offer the autism coverage as an option.

Concerns in the Senate focused on the higher premium costs that could result from the legislation.

"Folks that have individual policies or folks that have a small business are the ones that get hit with the cost of the mandate," said Sen. Delbert Scott, R-Lowry City.

In earlier debate, Sen. Chuck Purgason, R-Caulfield, had unsuccessfully tried to exempt employers with less than 50 workers. After the bill received preliminary approval in March, Purgason held the bill in the Government Accountability and Fiscal Oversight Committee, which he controls. He released the bill on Thursday.

Autism bills are HB357 and SB167.

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