JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri legislators were warned of an impending "autism tsunami" Tuesday as committees in both chambers heard bills mandating insurance coverage for the disorder.
Both versions of the bill referred to speculation about an increased number of children diagnosed with autism, yet how much insurance premiums will increase remains an issue.
A similar bill to mandate insurance coverage for autism passed in South Carolina. Lorri Unumb of South Carolina, mother of an autistic child and an Autism Speaks advocate, testified that Missouri should do the same.
"There is a huge autism tsunami about to hit the state of Missouri, and it's going to cost the state an extraordinary amount of money in special education, adult care and institutionalization if this current generation of kids does not get the treatment that it needs," Unumb said.
Neither the House nor the Senate took any action on the bill Tuesday. Committee Chairman Sen. Scott Rupp, R-St. Charles County, said action on the bill could take place as early as next week.
Proponents of the bill highlighted the increased diagnosis of autism nationwide, based on active screening programs and more awareness.
Members of the opposition pointed out that the number varies from one in 60 to one in 150 children.
The greatest concern voiced by representatives of insurance companies opposing the bill is that mandating autism coverage would push premiums too high for their customers, especially for small businesses.
While proponents of the bill said a boost in insurance premiums would be minuscule, statistics show an increase of up to 3 percent per member per month, said David Smith, a lobbyist for Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield.
The insurance company is interested in working out a compromise where children are covered and premiums remain affordable, Smith said.
"We, as the insurance carriers — not only this year but also last year — are not necessarily in opposition to the concept of providing care for kids, but we're looking at more of a logical side than the emotional side," Smith said.
The Missouri legislature must first determine whether the increase in autism is a tsunami or a trickle, said William Shoehigh, representing United Healthcare Inc. He asked both committees to consider exempting small businesses.
The bill was expected to pass easily through both the House and Senate during last year's session, but Republican Speaker Ron Richard unexpectedly derailed the House version last April after the Senate's quick passage. Richard was criticized by Rep. Paul LeVota, D-Jackson County, after failing to make the autism bill the first piece of legislation to be debated.
When the bill was blocked last April in favor of other health measures, Richard's office told Missouri Digital News that it had insufficient support.
Gov. Jay Nixon has endorsed a mandate for autism insurance coverage.