Treating autism early will save us special ed funds later

Rep. Pete Petersen

April is Autism Awareness Month, and this year the Legislature has the chance to meaningfully support autistic children and their families. There are many hardships and burdens faced by the parents of autistic children, and a simple fix will help alleviate the financial burden on autistic families.

Over one year ago, a mother came to my office to explain the dire financial situation her family faces as a result of her health insurance company denying coverage for treating her son's autism. I was outraged to learn that her family was forced to take out a second mortgage on their home and spend their other children's college savings funds to get their child the help he needs.

I was amazed we would allow a health insurance company to cash premium checks every month and then deny coverage for treatment that can range anywhere between $30,000 and $75,000 in annual costs. I put my staff to work on the issue, and we found that nine other states require insurance policies to cover treatment for autism, and in the last year 12 additional states have passed similar legislation. Our research has shown that while this is a significant help for autistic children and their families, the effect on the cost of health insurance has been negligible.

I introduced House Bill 187 to require health insurance companies in Alaska to cover treatment for autism spectrum disorders. It now has 21 sponsors and co-sponsors in the House and the sufficient number of votes to move it out of each committee.

I am very disappointed this legislation has not passed after over a year of sitting in the House Health and Social Services Committee, even after it received two full hearings. The Senate Health and Social Services Committee introduced similar legislation, which is now in the Senate Finance Committee.

Treatments have been developed in recent years to make it possible for nearly half the children who are diagnosed early with autism to eliminate the need for special education. The states that have health insurance mandates to cover these disorders are saving as much as $20,000 per year per child in special education costs, which adds up to more than $200,000 over a student's career. This is money that comes from the state's operating budget that could be used elsewhere.

If children receive intervention treatment before the age of 4, many of them go on to live productive lives comparable to those without a developmental disability. It is projected that nearly $3.2 million in social service costs per person can be saved over their lifetimes with effective early treatment.

Under this legislation, property taxpayers could see more dollars go to hiring more teachers or for property tax relief as the need to spend on special education would decrease. Special education is a very important asset for families with special needs children in public schools across the state, but if children can receive treatment for their developmental disabilities and then decrease the need for special services, it creates a win-win situation.

However, this advantage is not offered to autistic children in Alaska as long as health insurance companies are allowed to deny coverage for a treatable disability. In the states that have measurable results of the implementation of similar legislation, a less than a dollar-a-month increase in premiums could save these families hundreds of thousands of dollars and the state millions of dollars over the child's lifetime.

The total number of students receiving special education in Alaska this school year is 17,893 and 726 of those are diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder. If each of these children received the appropriate intervention they needed at an early age to minimize special education and societal costs, significant savings would be achieved.

Every day we delay passage of this insurance mandate, we relegate more children with autism to a life with fewer options or opportunities, or maybe even a life of institutionalization. I believe that every Alaska child deserves a chance at a normal life.

Democratic Rep. Pete Petersen represents Northeast Anchorage and Muldoon in the state House of Representatives.