Legislation that would require health insurers to cover autism treatment for children has been overwhelmingly approved by the Oklahoma House.
By a vote of 76-20, House members passed House Bill 2962 following an emotional debate between the parents of autistic children and lawmakers who claimed an autism mandate could drive up the cost of health insurance. The legislation is similar to a proposal that was defeated eight years ago.
Applause broke out in the House chamber as the measure by Republican Rep. Jason Nelson of Oklahoma City was approved. It now goes to the state Senate, where supporters said it faces opposition.
“It’s been a long battle … to fight for those who can’t really fight for themselves up here,” said Rep. Mike Brown, a Democrat from Tahlequah who played a pivotal role in trying to pass autism coverage legislation in 2008.
Brown said research indicates that the early diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder can provide the basis for an appropriate educational and treatment program.
“There’s a window of opportunity that’s very narrow in these children’s lives,” Brown said. “It’s time to do the right thing.”
Autism spectrum disorder involves a group of neurodevelopment disorders characterized by repetitive and characteristic patterns of behavior and difficulties with social communication and interaction, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Symptoms are present from early childhood.
More than 3.5 million Americans live with an autism spectrum disorder and it occurs in about one in every 68 births in the U.S., according to the Autism Society.
The bill requires a health benefit plan offered in Oklahoma to provide coverage for the screening, diagnosis and treatment of an autism spectrum disorder in children, with a maximum yearly benefit of $25,000.
Rep. Glen Mulready, a Tulsa Republican, debated against the measure. He questioned whether state government should mandate private insurance coverage and claimed it could drive up the cost of health insurance and make it unaffordable for many Oklahoma residents.
“This really is a hidden tax,” Mulready said. “There’s a consequence to rising premiums.”
Nelson said he has worked with insurance companies, families, physicians and therapists to address concerns about cost and still provide a meaningful benefit to children.
“I don’t want to increase premium costs,” Nelson said. He said 43 other states have enacted similar bills and insurance premiums increased by less than $1 per member per month.
“So many other states have done it and the wheels didn’t come off the wagon,” Nelson said. “This gives parents hope that they can afford the life-changing therapy they need without having to move out of state.”