A bill to mandate insurance coverage for autism treatment received a drastic makeover Thursday in the Utah Senate, disappointing hundreds of parents who hoped they could soon afford the necessary therapies for their children.
In its original form, SB55 would have required insurance coverage for children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. About 18,000 such youth live in Utah, said the bill's sponsor, Sen. Brian Shiozawa, R-Cottonwood Heights.
Realizing the measure lacked the votes to pass either legislative chamber, Shiozawa pared it back Thursday, nixing the insurance and confining it to expansion of a pilot program enacted last year. He is asking to double participants to 500 and raise the age limit to seven. The current pilot program tops out at age six.
"It's not my first choice," Shiozawa said of the substitute bill. "After conferring with House and Senate leadership I don't have the support of the insurance industry, and I frankly don't have the votes for the bill in its original form."
The latest version of SB55 seeks $1.5 million in one-time funding to expand the pilot program, which Shiozawa believes would yield more accurate statistical data as a result.
The original SB55 had estimated state budget costs at $1.3 million in 2014 and $1.85 million in 2015, dollars that would fund coverage for state employees, public education and the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP).
Mirella Petersen, mother of an autistic child and president of Utah Autism Coalition, praised Shiozawa for his tireless efforts, adding that thousands of parents were devastated to learn that SB55 could not advance in its original form.
"It takes someone truly special to take on an issue they truly believe is right and necessary, despite … tremendous opposition from a very powerful insurance lobby," Petersen said.
Shiozawa, an emergency physician by profession, said he plans to stay in the fight to require insurance coverage for autism. But until that happens, "the pragmatic point is to at least help as many children as we can."
In its revised form, SB55 still must clear both the Senate and the House.