Saturday, April 24, 2010

Autism law draws advocates' praise

Previously, insurers could deny coverage for unrelated treatments.

By SUSAN HYLTON World Staff Writer

Advocates for children with autism say that a bill signed into law Friday by Gov. Brad Henry is a good first step toward parity in health coverage for the disorder.

The legislation, added to Senate Bill 2045, requires health insurers to cover the same illnesses for autistic children as they do for children without the condition. The law came about after parents reported that medical coverage was denied for services having nothing to do with autism, such as playground injuries.

"This is a bill to stop any restrictions or discrimination against individuals with autism from medical or surgical procedures that are currently covered," said Wayne Rohde, whose 12-year-old son Nick was diagnosed with severe regressive autism when he was 4.

"The insurance companies needed to stop this discrimination. The leadership of both parties decided it wasn't right."

Rohde said insurance companies were limiting coverage for occupational and speech therapy for autistic children but not imposing those limitations for children without autism seeking the same treatment.

In one case, an autistic child was denied coverage for asthma treatments while an asthmatic child without autism was covered, Rohde said.

Christina Newendorp, development director at the Autism Center of Tulsa, who has two sons with autism, said parents had to decide whether they really wanted a diagnosis that could be used as a reason to reject medical claims.

Newendorp said the law won't require all insurance companies to cover the most effective treatments for autism, known as applied behavioral analysis, which can cost $2,000 to $4,000 a month.

That coverage was part of the 2009 failed legislation known as Nick's Law, named for Rohde's son.

"It doesn't address the larger issue of insurers out there who don't cover (autism) as a medical condition whatsoever," she said. "There's no logical reason for insurance companies not to consider autism a medical disorder. We're surrounded by states taking action on this issue. Oklahoma is dragging its feet."

With an estimated 1 in 150 children being diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, there could be a tidal wave of disabled adults in the future if nothing is done, Newendorp said.

"If we take action now, we can help turn these children's lives around so they can become independent adults," she said.

Rohde said that, with treatment, Nick moved from a severe form of autism to the middle of the spectrum.

He is still nonverbal, but he now recognizes words, feeds and dresses himself and is not completely dependent on others for his care.

He also plays with his twin brother, Austin, who does not have autism, his father said.

"Austin is very proud and introduces him to the neighborhood kids," Rohde said. "Austin knows how to communicate with him."

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