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Parents plea for autism coverage at Senate hearing

Montgomery Advertiser - 5/4/2017

May 04--Tracy Cron knows what autism therapies have meant for her son Remy. At two years old, he faced language delays, and as a child, he suffered sensory overload.

"He would go out to Walmart and just have complete meltdowns, because the fluorescent lights, the noise, and the crowds would overwhelm him," Cron, a nurse by training, said Thursday.

Now 14, Remy studies at the Alabama School of Fine Arts and exceeds. Cron said the early intervention provided the foundation for him to succeed.

"It made it so he's capable of living in our society and giving back to our society," she said.

But those are therapies Alabama parents pay for out of pocket, and a push to make insurers to cover those therapies was the focus of a public hearing in a Senate committee Thursday.

Alabama is one of a handful of states that does not require insurance companies to cover autism therapies, which can cost up to $120 an hour. Parents pay the costs out of pocket, and the state's schools are increasing tasked with paying for the therapies out of budgets.

"It's their college tuition," Cron said. "Either you have it in your retirement savings and you take it out, or you hit up your family members, who might be helpful to you, or they don't get the therapy."

The legislation sponsored by Rep. Jim Patterson, R-Meridianville would mandate state coverage of the therapies, with some caveats. The bill caps annual coverage and ties it to a sliding scale: $40,000 a year for children up to age 9; $30,000 for those aged 10 to 13; $20,000 for 14 to 18-year-olds and $10,000 for those 19 or older.

Patterson told the committee he didn't like the idea of mandates but said the benefits from the therapies were clear.

"If you don't have a mandate, it doesn't get covered," he said. "You have to make a decision. Is the price worth it to do it?"

Parents of autistic children, doctors who work with those kids and some children with autism answered that with a strong yes. Riley Ward, the 14-year-old daughter of Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said the therapies made a major impact in her life.

"Kids with autism need this insurance to help them with the therapies they need later in life," she said.

The bill includes a provision that allows insurers to stop offering the coverage if they show it will increase all insurance premium costs one percent. A Missouri study of similar coverage showed costs of autism therapy increased costs by about two-tenths of one percent.

Business groups and insurers objected to the mandates.

"Our main disagreement with this piece of legislation is it removes a businessman or businesswoman's ability to make that decision," said Robin Stone, a lobbyist with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alabama, the state's largest insurer. "Blue Cross has always opposed mandated benefits, and probably always will. We think that's an employer's decision, not the decision of the Legislature."

Patterson's legislation overwhelmingly passed the House last month but languished in the Senate before getting assigned to the Senate Finance and Taxation General Fund committee, chaired by Sen Trip Pittman, R-Montrose, who has expressed concerns about the costs. Following a floor protest Tuesday by Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Pike Road, leadership scheduled a hearing.

The committee did not vote on the bill Thursday, and it is not clear when a vote might take place. There are six days left in the 2017 regular session.

Advocates said the bill would help get children get the early intervention that will help them overcome the challenges of autism. Cron said her son's therapy "helps him assimilate into society." Sandra Redden, a Birmingham psychologist who works with autistic children, said "timing is critical" in getting the treatments.

"It's like any other issue, whether a child with heart disease or arthritis or diabetes," she said. "They need medical therapy that's proven treatment."

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(c)2017 the Montgomery Advertiser (Montgomery, Ala.)

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