Alabama Senate votes to mandate autism therapy coverage

Published 10:02 pm Tuesday, May 16, 2017

MONTGOMERY (AP) — The Alabama Senate on Tuesday voted to require some insurers to cover an intensive autism therapy, but only up to age 18. Senators voted 33-1 to mandate the coverage of applied behavioral analysis, also known as ABA therapy, an intense and individualized therapy that focuses on improved communication, social skills and other behaviors.

The House approved the bill unanimously earlier this session. Representatives will decide, likely on Wednesday, whether to go along with Senate changes to the bill such as the age cap.

Parents of children on the autism spectrum have been fighting for insurance coverage of the therapy they say can be life-changing but at $100-per-hour is out of many families’ financial reach. Insurance companies and business groups have raised concerns about costs.

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“The people back home wanted this bill passed. This is an example of the people getting their way, as opposed to the special interests getting their way. We need more of this is Montgomery,” said Rep. Jim Patterson, the bill’s sponsor.

The mandate would apply to businesses with at least 51 employees. Government insurance plans, such as Medicaid and All-Kids, would also have to supply the coverage but it the mandate would be delayed until late 2018 because lawmakers have already approved the upcoming budget.  The coverage would be capped each year, with the amount dependent on the child’s age. Coverage for children 9 and younger would be capped at $40,000 annually. Coverage for 10- to 13-year-olds would be capped at $30,000. Older teens would be capped at $20,000.

The Senate, by a 19-13 vote, added an amendment to end the coverage at age 18. Sen. Trip Pittman, who was the sole vote against the bill, said he was concerned about the costs of the coverage if adults on the spectrum had to be covered.

The approval is for a victory for parents who spent days lobbying at the Statehouse wearing red Autism Speaks T-shirts and peppering lawmakers with personal stories about how the therapy changed their children’s lives. However, they also expressed worry Tuesday night about the number of people who will be left out under the approved bill.

“We think it’s a great start. We’re excited for the ones that fall under the coverage,” said Catey Hall of Birmingham. Hall said the therapy worked wonders with her son, who went from not talking to being able to verbalize his needs as he heads into kindergarten. He’ll likely start school in a regular classroom, she said.