Autism coverage act passes in Senate

Apr 24, 2008

Florida Today--April 24, 2008

By Betty Parker

A wide-ranging bill that requires large insurance companies to provide coverage for treatment of autism won emotional passage by the full Senate on Wednesday, as supporters pledged to push the House to accept the Senate’s more comprehensive plan.

The bill, named the "Steven Geller Autism Coverage Act" in honor of the Cooper City Democratic senator who’s pushed it for nine years, says companies must provide coverage for therapies and other treatments needed to treat autism, but it excludes insurance plans offered by small employers.

But insurance coverage has been largely unavailable for people with autism, and advocates hailed the passage — which Geller said had been blocked for years by insurance companies — as a major step forward.

Geller said the additional coverage could cause insurance costs to go up less than 1 percent.

Unlike many who spoke in support, Geller said he has no family members with autism. But he’s seen the financial and emotional impact it has on so many families even as new treatments have led to substantial improvements in almost 90 percent of those with autism.

"It is unacceptable that in the wealthiest nation in the world, we tell these children we’re going to throw you out," Geller said, his voice breaking with emotion. "Rather than raise rates the one-quarter to one-half percent (to pay for treatment) we’d just throw them out. That is unacceptable to me. We can fix entire families with this."

The House autism-coverage plan, meanwhile, calls for the state’s Healthy Kids insurance program to accept children with autism, and sets limits on how much treatment they may receive. It also says the state will negotiate with private insurance companies to gain coverage and if no agreement is reached such coverage then can be mandated.

That plan, which passed the House Tuesday, provides more support than families have had in the past, but does not go as far as the Senate proposal on mandated coverage.

"Let’s make sure this passes and becomes law, not just that it passes the Senate," Geller said of his bill just before it gained unanimous Senate approval.

House leaders on the issue said they’ll work with Geller and other key senators to negotiate a bill both chambers can approve.