House panel OKs autism-aid plan
TALLAHASSEE, Apr 23, 2008 (The Miami Herald - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
A major healthcare plan to help children with autism and other developmental disabilities cleared a key state House council Tuesday, bringing Florida a step closer to providing universal insurance for kids.
For the first time, private insurers as well as Florida's KidCare health program would be required to provide services to children with disabilities, under the plan unanimously approved by the House Healthcare Council. Advocates praised House Speaker Marco Rubio for pushing the proposal, providing a rare sense of relief in a legislative session when programs for the poor, sick and disabled are being slashed as part of $5 billion in budget cuts.
Among the cuts: upward of $180 million in programs for the developmentally disabled. That irony aside, advocates and insurance lobbyists also noted that lawmakers are pushing ahead with a separate affordable health-insurance plan that reduces government mandates rather than requiring more of them.
If the proposal passes, Florida would be one of 12 states to require insurance companies to cover treatment for children with autism. But key questions need to be answered, such as how many children will be served, what will happen to KidCare and whether the proposal will make health premiums more expensive.
A big roadblock: time. The 60-day legislative session is scheduled to end May 2. And some insurance companies, as well as some senators, are privately balking at the late-in-the-game proposal.
"I know it's late in session -- two weeks left. I know it's a broad thing, a big proposal, but I think it's worth our time," said Rubio, who began pushing the House measure after a friend's child was diagnosed with autism.
More and more children are being diagnosed with autism, experts say, but no one is sure why. Right now, one of every 150 8-year-olds has autism. Virtually everyone agrees that early intervention and therapy can make a big difference.
Under the plan, a child would be able to receive $36,000 a year in services -- for a lifetime maximum of $108,000 -- and allow more parents to enter the program by paying the full premium.
In the past, concerns about rising insurance premiums have killed the idea. But Tuesday, representatives from the Florida Insurance Council and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Florida told sponsors they support the plan.
Senate Democratic Leader Steve Geller of Cooper City is pushing a similar proposal, though it only includes a private-insurance mandate for autism and no other disability.
Geller said some people are concerned that the House's broad proposal would cost too much and worries that covering developmental disabilities in KidCare could raise the cost of premiums and break the bank. Next year's proposed budget includes an extra $36.4 million for KidCare enrollment, enough for 38,000 additional slots.
"I am concerned that this year adding a big fiscal hit to the state could be problematic," Geller said. "I like what they're doing. I'm just worried about the funding for it."
On the other hand, some parents say the plan should do more. The proposal's $108,000 limit in lifetime coverage is not enough for parents spending thousands each year, said Carmen Zaldivar, a Miramar mother who has a 13-year-old son with autism.
Hilda Mitrani, of North Miami Beach, said autism therapy made a huge difference for her 13-year-old son, David. When he was diagnosed on his second birthday, he wasn't making eye contact, wouldn't speak and wouldn't respond to his name.
His parents scrimped to pay his $40,000 annual therapy bill. Today, he attends a public school in Broward, where his father lives, and last year he learned Hebrew and celebrated his bar mitzvah.
"Some parents are able to spend a great deal of money to help their children," Mitrani said. "But every child deserves a chance."
Miami Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report.