Friday, January 30, 2009

Senator says autism costs minimal

Senator says autism costs minimal

By The Associated Press
Tim Talley

OKLAHOMA CITY — A study by a state group insurance board indicates that a proposed health insurance coverage mandate for autism would have little impact on insurance costs, a state senator said Friday.

Sen. Jay Paul Gumm, D-Durant, said the study by the Oklahoma State and Education Employees Group Insurance Board showed an impact to premiums of 1 percent or less and supports a study released last year that said the measure would create only a .47 percent premium cost increase, roughly a tenth of the current rate of inflation.

Gumm, author of an autism mandate bill, said OSEEGIB's findings also called into question the credibility of a study by the Oklahoma House that said an autism coverage mandate would increase rates by at least 7.8 percent and possibly as high as 19.8 percent.

House Republican leaders have opposed the mandate legislation and claim it will drive up insurance costs. Instead, they have proposed a plan to increase the number of therapists for autistic children in the state.

"All the studies done independently and by individuals who don't have anything to gain from this are showing an impact of around 1 percent," Gumm said. "This proposal doesn't carry the possibility of huge rate increases, and this study removes the final excuse they have for not supporting this legislation."

Gumm has filed mandate legislation known as "Nick's Law," named for an 11-year-old autistic boy from Edmond, Nick Rohde. The same bill was passed by the Senate last year but was repeatedly blocked by GOP

House leaders.

Nick's father, Wayne Rohde, said the latest study validates claims by the parents of autistic children that a mandate similar to others in about 20 states, including Texas, would not significantly raise insurance rates.

"Nick's Law as presently written has very insignificant costs and probably would be absorbed into the system," Rohde said.

Autism is a bioneurological disability that affects communication skills in young children, many of whom also suffer from ailments such as allergies, asthma and epilepsy. Officials estimate it affects about one out of every 150 children.

Rohde has said he spends $5,000 a month for autism therapies for his son and another $1,000 a month for a health insurance policy that does not cover autism. Refusing to require health insurers to cover the diagnosis and treatment of autistic children places the ultimate burden of caring for them on taxpayers, he said.

"It will save the taxpayer lots of money. And it will actually save these children, too," he said.

House Speaker Chris Benge, R-Tulsa, was not immediately available for comment Friday evening, said Jennifer Monies, the House's communications director.

Meanwhile, the author of a similar autism mandate bill in the House expressed pessimism that the bill will be kept alive when it is heard by the House Economic Development and Financial Services Committee on Tuesday. The GOP autism plans is also scheduled to be heard by the committee on Tuesday.

Democratic Floor Leader Mike Brown of Tahlequah said the hearing is "a grudging shuffle in the direction of fairness" that is the result of political pressure exerted by the families of autistic children.

"Unfortunately, the Republicans have already made up their minds to kill this bill before they've heard it," Brown said. "The Republicans claim to sympathize with the plight of these families, but how sympathetic can they be if they won't respond to their one requests?"

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