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EDITORIAL: Help on hold: Bill to provide coverage for autism treatment bottled up [Anchorage Daily News, Alaska]

Apr. 14--For two sessions now, Rep. Pete Petersen has had a simple bill in the House to help 1,200 autistic children and their families. House Bill 187 would require health insurance companies to cover up to $36,000 a year in treatment for autism spectrum disorders.

The bill is aimed at early intervention for autistic kids, treatment that offers the best chance to live a normal, independent life.

Health insurers can deny such treatment now, and the industry opposes the bill, as does the National Federation of Independent Businesses. They fear the costs.

Rep. Petersen's staff research shows they fear small change. In Minnesota, where mandatory autism coverage has been the law for almost 10 years, the actual increased cost per insurance policy per month is 82 cents. That's $9.84 per year. In Alaska, an actuarial study concluded the cost would average $16.10 per year.

Or, as Rep. Petersen said, "a large pizza per year."

That's a cost we'd guess most Alaskans would bear to help hundreds of autistic kids get early treatment for better lives. That's one of those costs that we bear for one another -- and one of those costs that can spare greater costs down the road in special education, more expensive ongoing care and treatment and the loss to the economy and society of productive, taxpaying individuals.

Apparently most of the Legislature agrees. Petersen, an Anchorage Democrat, had a bipartisan majority of 21 cosponsors on the bill and said Tuesday he also has the votes to pass the bill in the Senate.

Yet the bill is dead.

Why? Rep. Wes Keller of Wasilla, co-chair of the House Health and Social Services Committee, refused to move it. According to Petersen and other bill proponents, Keller , a Republican, is philosophically opposed to insurance mandates, to the government telling health insurers what to cover. Keller did not immediately return a call for comment on Tuesday.

What Keller and the committee have done recently is offer their own bill, HB 425, which would set up a new state program to help autistic children. An interim working group will hold hearings on how best to structure such a program to aid these children.

So nothing is likely to happen this session.

It's a bit of a head scratcher. According to Petersen, more than 20 states have some form of mandatory coverage for autism spectrum disorders. Families in states that don't have it find themselves facing second mortgages, second or third jobs and other hardships -- along with the extra work of caring for an autistic child -- or simply forgoing or limiting treatment that could change their children's lives.

Keller's alternative likely would create a state-funded program with ongoing operating costs, depending on what the working group recommends. Would this make more sense? We don't think so.

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According to Petersen, Kansas tried something similar, underfunded it and wound up with a waiting list, and now its legislature is working on an insurance mandate.

If the working group finds a better solution, good. But spare us too much study while families wait. Twenty states have blazed this trail and it's hard to buck the logic of requiring health insurers to provide health insurance.

The insurance mandate looks like the fastest, cheapest way to pay for treatment of autistic children without breaking the financial backs of their families. Such treatment provides tremendous change for those afflicted, at the cost of small change to the rest of us.

BOTTOM LINE: However we do it, let's get early help for autistic children. Sooner than later.

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Copyright (c) 2010, Anchorage Daily News, Alaska

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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