Thursday, July 27, 2006

A Step Forward for Autism Treatment in Tennessee

Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen last month signed into law the "Autism Equity Act" which says that health insurers whose coverage plans include services for neurological disorders must provide services to children with autism up to age 12.

The spirit of the law is clear: health insurers cannot discriminate against children with autism spectrum disorders when it comes to claiming services. If a health insurer covers neurological disorders, they have to cover autism. (What's a neurological disorder? publishes this list, citing a National Institutes of Health public record.)

This is potentially a big deal for families, as parents of kids with autism know. Health insurers often don't cover, or severely limit coverage of, therapies like applied behavior analysis and occupational therapy. The costs of those services accumulate quickly and can run tens of thousands of dollars a year.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. The Tennessee law also says that insurers must apply the same kinds of deductibles or co-payments that patients with other kinds of neurological diagnoses must pay. Could insurers rewrite their coverage rules to limit their liabilities? I can't tell from the way the law is written.

The bill generated very little in the way of media coverage, so it's difficult to tell whether there was much debate. The Tennessee legislature's website says the 30-member Senate passed the bill unanimously but it does not record a House vote. The governor's website lists signing ceremonies, but not this one. The Tennessee Disability Coalition, an advocacy group, posts some photos of the ceremony.

There was no specific mention of autism-related dollars in the state budgets for 2007 which were posted online, though the legislature published a fiscal impact note for the autism law. It is vague, projecting that local, state and federal government costs and health insurance premiums will rise by more than $300,000. That's not even chicken feed in a $26 billion state budget, of course.

So, while the details of this new law plays out, let's all figuratively join Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield for a reception and celebration on Aug. 2. As the mayor puts it: "“The Autism Equity Act is a key piece of legislation for people with autism and will help ease the financial strain so many families are experiencing."

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