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Microsoft: Innovating in Response to Autism

REDMOND, WA (January 16, 2014) -- Since its founding in 1975, Microsoft has been associated with dramatic innovations in computer software and devices that have fundamentally reshaped how the world works, plays and communicates. Less well known has been the company's innovative response to autism.

In 1999, the incidence of autism was estimated to be 1 in 500 children. Insurance companies routinely denied any coverage for the evaluation, diagnosis and treatment of autism. Public awareness and funding for research were virtually nil.

Yet it was in 1999, that Microsoft started getting actively involved in the nation's budding autism epidemic. Microsoft employee Jon Rosenberg and seven other employees raising kids with autism approached the company's benefits staff about a promising therapy, applied behavior analysis (ABA), that was yielding positive results treating children with autism. The therapy involves intensive one-on-one treatment and could cost $60,000 a year or more, a crippling financial burden without insurance coverage.

Because Microsoft, like most major employers, self-funds its health benefits plan, it was governed under federal ERISA law which does not require ABA coverage. Microsoft, nevertheless, began examining ABA and whether it should voluntarily add coverage for its employees.

"We developed a partnership with the University of Washington Autism Center in 2000, and after the benefit was designed and finalized, we added it to our plan in January of 2001," said Julie Sheehy, Microsoft's director of health & wellness. “The fact that we had the University of Washington Autism Center on our doorstep really allowed us to work with a partner with deep expertise, which enabled us to develop an innovative, effective and viable benefit program in an area where few others had gone before.”

Dozens of major employers across the U.S. have since followed Microsoft's lead, including many in the high-tech sector, including Apple, Intel, Cisco Systems, Oracle and, most recently, Qualcomm. Rosenberg and his fellow Microsoft employees, known affectionately as the "Gang of Eight," helped open a new front in the autism insurance campaign which is delivering critical benefits to more and more families around the nation.

"Recent research showing the efficacy of early, intensive ABA therapy supported Microsoft’s decision to cover this therapy back in 2001," said Sheehy. "Based on our dialogue with families of children with autism and the research showing the positive impact of ABA Therapy, we also hoped that this benefit would have a positive impact on employee engagement and retention."

Learn more about Rosenberg's experience on the Microsoft Accessibility Blog here.

To learn how you can convince your ERISA employer to add coverage for autism treatments, go here.