By ERICH WAGNER
ANNAPOLIS (Feb. 27, 2009)—Lawmakers, parents and advocates called for health insurers to provide coverage for the diagnosis and treatment of autism Thursday at a rally and hearing in the House Health and Government Operations Committee.
A bill in the General Assembly would force insurance companies to include up to $50,000 per year for autism treatment in Marylanders' health insurance plans. Many parents now pay out of pocket for their autistic child's treatment.
Autism is a developmental disorder characterized by impaired social interactions and communication. Its cause and cure are unknown, but families have found that treatment—called applied behavioral analysis, or ABA—is an effective tool to improve behavior and communication.
Delegate Kirill Reznik, D-Montgomery, who introduced the bill, said he felt Maryland needed to enact these requirements because it is thought of as a progressive and innovative state, particularly in regards to medicine. Eight other states have already required autism coverage by insurance companies.
"Maryland, (which) is supposed to be this forward-looking, health-conscious progressive state, is still wallowing in the background," Reznik said.
Adam Berman, 22, was diagnosed with autism when he was 2. Berman said he was lucky enough to receive the expensive treatment as a child, and as a result he graduated from the University of Maryland and works as a peer educator in Montgomery County.
"[With applied behavioral analysis], instead of being the problem of the taxpayers," Berman said, "they can be the taxpayers."
But the Maryland Chamber of Commerce opposed the legislation because of the potential cost to employers. And health insurance lobbyists argued that this treatment is primarily educational instead of medical, and that the effect on the insured would be uneven in terms of both cost and coverage.
Debbie Rivkin, a lobbyist representing the League of Life and Health Insurers, said the bill would only affect 15 percent of Marylanders with health coverage, because the bill only targets the large group insurance market, which includes people insured through larger businesses.
"The problem is if you just look at the insurance piece, which is what this bill does, you do not get a broad-based solution," Rivkin said.
Stuart Spielman, the senior policy advisor and counsel for government relations at Autism Speaks, said the argument that it would only affect people in the large group market is faulty because the markets all influence one another.
"What you do in the large group market does affect the other markets," Spielman said.
Reznik said the long-term benefits would outweigh the initial costs of bringing autism into the fold of health care coverage.
"They're concerned with costs, and I recognize that, but my preference is that we take a longer view of it," Reznik said. "Not doing the insurance coverage will save them money now, but cost them money in the future."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.