Missouri Senate approves autism coverage requirement

Thursday, March 18, 2010 | 4:55 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri senators voted Thursday to require some health insurance plans to cover treatment for autism.

The legislation, approved by a 26-6 vote, would require group insurance policies regulated by the state to provide up to $55,000 annually for behavioral treatment until age 21. The "applied behavioral analysis" is an intensive and costly therapy some parents say produces dramatic improvements in their autistic children.

Autism is a broad term used to describe a spectrum of neurological disorders that affect about 1 out of 110 children in the United States, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Similar legislation was approved by the House in February and would require coverage of up to $36,000 annually until age 18. The Senate version of the bill now goes to the House. The two chambers must agree on the same version before the legislation goes to Gov. Jay Nixon.

Several senators raised the coverage as a moral issue, saying insurance plans cover the treatment costs for Alzheimer's disease and alcoholism, but not autism.

"This disorder is kidnapping the minds of our children," sponsoring Sen. Scott Rupp, R-Wentzville, said.

Both the House and Senate bills would allow businesses with 50 or fewer employees to get an exemption from the autism insurance mandate if they show that the requirement caused health insurance premiums to increase by at least 2.5 percent from the previous year.

Senators questioned Thursday whether the state can afford the $1.7 million cost while the state is struggling financially.

"The fact is that we are broke," Sen. Chuck Purgason, R-Caulfield, said. "We're going to add to that with this bill."

Nixon — who supports the bill — estimates that $500 million needs to be trimmed from his original proposed budget to deal with declining state revenue.

"This bill would ensure that Missouri children and families have access to vital treatments and therapies shown to make a major and lasting difference in their lives," Nixon said in a statement released Thursday.

Rupp said the behavioral treatment for people with autism would cut state costs for social services and special education. Rupp said the state and families both do their part to pay for the care of people with autism.

"The only one not paying is the insurance industry," Rupp said. "I'm not going to allow this to continue to keep happening in this state."

Besides the insurance coverage amounts, there are several other differences between the House and Senate versions of the legislation. The Senate's insurance mandate would begin Aug. 28 while the House version would begin Jan. 1. The House legislation also would set up a state licensing process for behavior analysts and their assistants who oversee the treatment of autistic children.

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