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After years of parents pushing for it, a bill to require health insurers to pay for autism treatment for kids has finally passed both houses of the Legislature.
The House passed SB57 on a 69-3 vote. But because it was amended, it was sent back to the Senate for a final vote before it may go to Gov. Gary Herbert for signature. The Senate earlier passed it 18-7.
The bill would add Utah to the list of 34 states that require insurers to pay for autism treatment for children, but the coverage would not be effective until Jan. 1, 2016.
"There's a medical adage you never want to be the first or the last to embrace a therapy," Sen. Brian Shiozawa, R-Cottonwood Heights, the bill's sponsor and a physician, said earlier. "This is not an investigational drug or therapy. We know this is safe and that it works."
Rep. Kay McIff, R-Richfield, said, "This is an idea whose time has come. I do not recall a single group that has been more persistent" than parents of autistic parents.
Rep. Roger Barrus, R-Centerville, said he has seen such bills pushed for at least six years unsuccessfully, and promoted one himself. "I am proud of this body for recognizing that this is something … necessary to help these children and their families."
House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden, the House sponsor of the bill, said lawmakers were able to work with parents and insurance companies to achieve a product that all can finally support.
"I think it will be helpful not only to the insurance industry of Utah, but also children and families that bear the burden and sometimes the blessings of autism," he said.
Rep. Dean Sanpei, R-Provo, who works for Intermountain Health Care, said the bill has protections for the insurance industry such as allowing employers whose health premiums might increase by more than 1 percent to opt out of the program.
The effect on premiums in other states, Shiozawa assured, has been minimal.
The bill also helps insurance companies by tightening definitions of what is covered, and allows insurers to escape some mandates if rulings show they are not allowed by "Obamacare."
Rep. Ed Redd, R-Logan, a doctor, said the bill will force covering treatment "when intervention can make a difference" when children are young.
He said he has treated adults who lacked such treatment when they were young and they "require extensive support to stay alive essentially." He said the bill "will save a lot of money in addition to doing the right thing" over the long term.
Rep Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, said, treatment of autism is "as necessary as taking care of a broken leg or heart attack."
"Early intervention is absolutely critical," said Rep. Ronda Menlove, R-Garland. "We know it works and it helps children and it helps families."
In earlier hearings, families spoke of having to dip into retirement savings, sell homes and file bankruptcy to pay for treatment.
"We needed speech and occupational therapy and we were not able to receive that through the insurance that we paid premiums for. We paid for it on our own, which led to us filing bankruptcy," Nate Passey, the Midvale father of a 6-year-old girl with autism, said in a hearing.
Of particular concern to lawmakers, though, were reports of insurers refusing to cover medical claims unrelated to autism once children are diagnosed.
"It doesn't make any sense to me when I hear stories about little children who have broken arms and are denied coverage because they have autism. It's appalling. There's no excuse for that," Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, said in a hearing. "I hope industry will work to resolve that problem."