|Utah autism insurance mandate clears first hurdle|
By Heather May
The Salt Lake Tribune
Despite opposition from insurance companies and a small business association, a bill that would mandate coverage of autism therapy for children passed a Senate committee Thursday.
Called "Clay's Law," SB 43 would require insurance to pay up to $50,000 a year for early behavioral therapy, which typically involves one-on-one instruction at least 25 hours a week.
Eight other states require similar coverage, and Nevada lawmakers are expected to pass an autism bill as well. Utah has one of the highest rates of autism, with 1 in 133 children affected, compared to the national rate of 1 in 150.
To accommodate the large crowd of parents and children who appeared in support of the bill, the Senate Health and Human Services moved to a larger room. The group cheered and clapped after the committee voted 5-1 for the bill. It now moves to the Senate floor.
"Every kid needs and should have a life as great as mine. I love being me," said Clay Whiffen, the 8-year-old for whom the bill is named.
Diagnosed with autism as a child, boy received therapy because his Highland parents were able to afford the $60,000 cost. He told the senators he now likes to write in cursive, talk with his friends and can hold a handstand for six seconds.
"Just being a kid is hard enough," he said. "Having autism is a whole lot worse."
Another parent with three autistic children said she had to choose which child to help because she couldn't afford full time therapy for all of them. Noting one of her children had cancer, she said she would choose a cancer diagnosis over autism because of insurance coverage.
Fraser Bullock, who was in charge of the 2002 Winter Olympics' budget, also spoke in favor of the bill. His granddaughter has autism, but he was able to help pay for the expensive treatment. Now managing director of the Utah-based private equity firm Sorenson Capital, Bullock said business owners he contacted support the mandate even though they will bear some of the costs.
"This cost does not give us a second thought," he said.
No fiscal note has been attached, but supporters and opponents estimate it will cost the state $1 million a year to cover government employees. Supporters also say it would increase private premium costs by less than 1 percent.
Jim Olsen, president of the Utah Retail Merchants Association, said those incremental costs add up. More of his members are dropping insurance coverage for their employees altogether due to escalating premium costs, in part due to unfunded mandates, he said.
Kelly Atkinson, executive director of the Utah Health Insurance Association, also spoke against the bill, saying the mandate would only apply to 33 percent of insured Utahns. For two-thirds of the families in the room, "nothing you do today will impact them."
After nearly 90 minutes of testimony, senators had little time to debate the bill. They wondered how effective the treatment is -- up to 50 percent of children could become indistinguishable from their peers, according to a pediatrician -- and whether the diagnosis of autism is reliable since it requires observation instead of, for example, a lab test.
Only Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden, voted against the bill. Noting that he is fighting to save funding for autism preschools and a registry to track the prevalence and risk factors for autism, he said the bill shifts money from one group to another. "Where do we draw the line with mandates?" he asked.
But sponsoring Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, said young families pay for therapies for older people and now it's others' turn to help them. "This is an appropriate conservative approach," he said.