By DANIEL OPSOMMER
Capital News Service
LANSING – Families affected by autism could have much greater access to needed care under legislation approved by the House that requires insurers to cover treatments for autism spectrum disorders.
A bill by Rep. Richard Ball, R-Bennington Township, is part of a bipartisan package that would mandate coverage for the treatment of autism.
“Health coverage would be a life-changer for families affected by autism because it will allow so many young people to lead better and more fulfilling lives,” Ball said. “Above all, it’s a humanitarian and quality-of-life issue.”
Autism is a developmental disability that substantially impairs social interaction and communication and causes unusual behaviors, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Many people with autism also have unusual ways of learning, paying attention and reacting to different sensations. The autism spectrum includes Asperger’s disorder and pervasive developmental disorder.
Between 2001 and 2006, the number of children in Michigan public schools diagnosed with autism-related disorders more than doubled, according to the Autism Society of Michigan.
Today about one in 150 children nationally are diagnosed with autism or a closely related disorder, according to the CDC. However, the CDC said the data doesn’t mean that autism is on the rise, because the criteria for diagnosis has changed over time.
“People with autism are unique in the sense that they all have individualized needs,” said Ball, who previously operated an optometry clinic where he had patients with autism who had been assessed inaccurately. “In many cases they require unique care, which most people are reluctant to provide because it costs more.”
If children are diagnosed with autism as early as 18 months of age, effective therapy can raise their IQ levels and improve their language skills and behavior, according to Autism Speaks, an advocacy organization in New York.
Ball said requiring insurers to cover treatment would save the state money in Medicaid expenses and other services such as special education.
“A standard eye exam wasn’t the proper approach to examining these young men and women’s eyes because they either couldn’t read or couldn’t read very well,” Ball said. “They were being improperly diagnosed, which just made things harder on them.”
Ball said he developed a test where he cut colored construction paper into different sizes, and placed them on the floor around his office and asked his patients to find and collect the pieces.
“The test didn’t necessarily depend on whether or not they were able to find all the cutouts,” Ball said. “I was more concerned with observing them to see when they first identified certain cutouts and which they identified first because I could then tell if they were near – or far – sighted.”
The House passed Ball’s bill 83 to 25. Opponents of the bill include the Michigan AFL-CIO, Michigan Association of Health Plans, Michigan Manufacturers Association and Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce.
Andy Johnston, director of environmental affairs for the chamber said his organization believes the best way to reduce costs and providing efficient delivery is to eliminate government intervention in health care.
“It really doesn’t have anything to do with autism. It has to do with health care delivery,” Johnston said.
The bill is currently pending in the Senate Economic Development and Regulatory Reform Committee.
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.
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By DANIEL OPSOMMER