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Autism therapy can help children and parents, and the earlier the therapy is provided, the better the outcome. That seems to be a consensus among the few Utah families receiving treatment through a state pilot program funded through Medicaid.

But what of the thousands of other Utah children and their families who are struggling with autism, cannot get into the pilot program, whose insurance won't cover treatment and who can't afford to pay for it on their own?

The answer to that is simple: Utah should require insurance companies operating in the state to cover autism treatment, as do at least 31 other states. According to the Council for Affordable Health Insurance, an autism mandate increases the cost of health insurance by only about 1 percent.

The only reason that hasn't happened is that state legislators are paying more attention to deep-pocketed insurance company lobbyists than they are to the state's children.

The state program offers the desperately needed therapy to only 277 children under the age of 7. They are chosen by lottery and the therapy prizes are distributed in rural and urban areas throughout the state.

Besides the small number of children being helped, the program can't consistently provide qualified, well-trained therapists in rural communities where there are no medical providers who specialize in treating autism. If insurers were required to cover treatment, it's likely Utah would attract more providers.

The state has selected only one type of therapy — applied behavior analysis — and rejects any alternatives.

Still, some rural Utahns are seeing great improvement in their autistic children who do receive the treatment from qualified providers.

Utah's autism rate is among the highest in the nation and double the national average. Conservative state Department of Health estimates show 1 in 63 Utah children is at risk for an autism spectrum disorder. A recent study just released by the Centers for Disease Control indicates the risk may be even higher, validating earlier findings indicating Utah's rate at 1 in 47.

While it's true that Utah's high numbers may be due in part to better screening and diagnosis and a greater awareness of the condition, there is no doubt Utah children are facing a very real threat.

Autism spectrum disorder can severely affect a child's ability to communicate and learn. Early treatment has been shown to improve behavior and allow many children with severe autism to gain verbal and social skills that help them learn. But many older children not diagnosed early can also benefit from treatment.

It's unconscionable that the Utah Legislature continues to do so little to help Utah families whose children with autism should be covered under all insurance policies.

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