Over the past five years, we have celebrated as state after state across the country has turned “green” by enacting autism insurance reform. Michigan in April became the 30th state to turn green and the Alaska Legislature has sent an autism insurance reform bill to its governor for signature. Close to 75 percent of the U.S. population now lives in a green state!
Now we have a new phenomenon to report – states going “greener.” In other words, they have taken their existing laws and made them even stronger. Vermont just upped the age cap for autism insurance benefits under its 2010 law from 6 to 21. In Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal is considering amendments voted out of the Legislature to strengthen the original law he signed in 2008. Elementary school student Annastacia Barlow (right) helped lobby legislators.
So what exactly is a “green” state? It is a state that requires insurers by law to cover the diagnosis and treatment of autism. These laws are necessary because painfully few private insurance companies or other employee benefit plans will voluntarily cover autism therapies. In fact, many insurance companies designate autism as a diagnostic exclusion, meaning that no autism-specific services are covered. That means parents have been forced to pay as much as $50,000 or more a year out-of-pocket for medical treatments, such as applied behavior analysis, which have been proven to help children with autism become more independent and lead more fulfilling lives.
Our own Lorri Unumb, an attorney and the mother of a child with autism, started fighting back against this discrimination over five years ago in her native South Carolina. “Ryan’s Law,” named after her son with autism, was the first of the many laws that have followed. Louisiana became the sixth state in 2008 and Vermont turned “green” in 2010. Because of the success of these laws, legislators in the two states this year came back to make their laws even stronger and their states even greener! Attempts driven by the insurance lobby to roll back these laws, meanwhile, have failed, most notably in Arizona where a repeal bill was vetoed last year by Governor Jan Brewer.
Despite these successes many families question why they continue to lack coverage, which is particularly vexing if they live in a green state. The answer lies in the type of coverage your employer offers. Many employers “self-fund” their health benefits, a process which is regulated under federal law and therefore exempt from state requirements. Or, a family living in a green state may work for an employer based in a non-green state which does not require coverage of autism benefits. Federal employees and members of the military, meanwhile, are covered under insurance plans that are also not subject to the state requirements.
Our number one goal at Autism Speaks is to strive for health insurance coverage for all individuals regardless of where they are on the lifespan or where they or their parents are employed. There are times when we have to make concessions to initially pass legislation, but we will keep coming back until this goal is fully realized. We have successfully encouraged companies with self-funded plans to voluntarily offer autism benefits, while simultaneously pursuing changes in federal law to require such coverage. We are working in Washington to gain coverage for federal employees and are supporting legislation now advancing through Congress to provide benefits to military dependents. And we are working with local advocates in the 20 states that do not require coverage to make these benefits available by law.
Our goal is to save you some green by turning every state and every policy green. Stay tuned to Autism Votes as we work for all families affected by autism.