Our view: Autism bill

The need is clear. The votes are there. All that's required to pass a bill that will help some Alaska families with autistic children is for Rep. Wes Keller to let it pass out of the House Health and Social Services Committee, which he chairs.

The bill would require private insurance companies to cover early intervention and treatment therapies for autism spectrum disorders. Such coverage would do tremendous good for autistic children and their families. The treatments have clearly been shown to help children with a range of developmental disorders improve their behavior and their chances to stay out of institutions, attend school and live richer, healthier lives. Further, such treatment can cut later costs of special education and other needs down the road.

The alternative? As testimony showed, the alternatives were families financially strapped, separated and put under increasing financial, physical and psychological pressure in trying to do their best for an autistic child.

Pass Senate Bill 74, and life doesn't have to be that way for the families of about 390 of the estimated 2,600 Alaska children with autism.

The cost? An average of 31 cents per private insurance member per month, according to claims data from five states which have implemented the required coverage. Premium increases for employers who provide insurance are projected at $1.34 per month.

Those figures come from the office of Sen. Johnny Ellis, who sponsored the bill, which passed the Senate 14-5 and has 28 sponsors -- 15 Democrats, 13 Republicans -- in the House.

Rep. Keller isn't fond of mandates. Alaska has plenty of mandates for insurers, and they're common-sense requirements for the common good of Alaskans -- well-baby exams, which Rep. Keller has supported, and mammograms among them.

There's a reason that lopsided majorities of both the House and Senate not only support this bill but signed on as co-sponsors. It's a simple opportunity for legislators to do much good at little cost. That bipartisan support reflects an Alaska trait we've seen over and over through the years: Give Alaskans a specific good thing to do to help their neighbors, and they'll respond in spades.

Rep. Keller has the opportunity to respond here. The choice boils down to this: He can either recoil at mandates, or do something to make sure that fewer children "slip into darkness," as his colleague Rep. Dan Saddler said.

It's his call right now. Put more light into the lives of some of Alaska's stricken children, and he'll have something he can carry out of the session with pride. Shoot, he'll have something he can carry with confidence to Judgment Day.

BOTTOM LINE: Coverage for autism treatment is the right thing to do and the smart thing to do.