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New Study Finds Autism Insurance, Mental Health Parity Laws Helping Fa

July 28, 2012

NEW YORK – Autism Speaks hailed the release of a new study that documents the cost savings for autism therapies for families who live in states with autism insurance reform or mental health parity laws.

Led by Brandeis University Professor Susan Parish, the study compared the experiences of families living in one of the nine states in 2005 that had enacted mental health parity or some form of autism insurance reform laws with that of families living in states without such laws. The peer-reviewed paper, “State Insurance Parity Legislation for Autism Services and Family Financial Burden,” was published in the June edition of the journal "Intellectual and Development Disabilities."

“We found that families who live in states that have passed parity legislation spent considerably less for their children with autism than families living in states without such legislation,” said Parish, the Nancy Lurie Marks professor of disability policy at Brandeis’ Heller School for Social Policy and Management.

Families who lived in states that required some form of autism insurance coverage were 28 percent less likely to have spent over $500 for their child’s health care costs. Families living in states with mental health parity laws were 29 percent less likely to have spent over $500.

“"This report bolsters what autism families know first-hand -- that autism insurance reform provides needed financial relief,” said Lorri Unumb, Esq., Autism Speaks vice president for state government affairs.

The study drew child and family data from the National Survey of Children with Special Health Care Needs. The team then modeled the association between state laws on autism services and the families' financial burden, adjusting for child-, family-, and state-level characteristics. The study found that 78 percent of the families reported some health care expenditures for their child over the prior 12 months, and of those, more than half – 54 percent – said they spent more than $500. 

“This study offers preliminary evidence in support of advocates' arguments that requiring private insurers to cover autism services will reduce families' financial burdens associated with their children's health care expenses,” according to the study abstract.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, every state but Wyoming now has a mental health parity law on the books, requiring that insurers cover mental illness and/or substance abuse equally as physical illnesses. Michigan and Pennsylvania require parity only for substance abuse.

Families have successfully sued for autism benefits under their state’s mental health parity laws in Washington and California.  

In addition to Parish, the study team included Kathleen Thomas of the Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research; Roderick Rose of the University of North Carolina; and Mona Kilany and Robert McConville of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.