Insurance coverage for autism is goal of Palm Beach County commissioner

Dec 26, 2007

By Josh Hafenbrack

South Florida Sun-Sentinel

December 26, 2007

Jack Kanjian loves dinosaurs. He’s writing a book about his favorites on colored construction paper, illustrated with crayons. When he grows up, Jack wants to run a prehistoric zoo — with real dinosaurs, not just replicas — and start a TV station dedicated to the creatures.

He plays the piano, pee-wee basketball and rides horses competitively. A few weeks ago he went skiing in Aspen.

Jack has autism.

You’d never know it meeting him. He seems like any precocious 9-year-old, an honor student in the third-grade gifted program.

The reason for Jack’s success: his parents, Palm Beach County Commissioner Bob Kanjian and his wife, Anne, who had the money to put him through rigorous therapy sessions called applied behavioral analysis during the crucial early years, after Jack was diagnosed with autism at 2 years old.

The treatments ran about $45,000 a year, Kanjian said, and weren’t covered by insurance.

Kanjian is using his clout as a county commissioner to advocate that the same coverage be available to everyone with insurance. He wants Florida legislators to mandate that private insurance companies cover autism, a battle that’s being waged in a growing number of states across the country.

When his son was diagnosed with the brain disorder, Kanjian recalled meeting a school custodian whose child also had autism. Their incomes determined the level of care each child got, he said.

"The difference between his job and my job shouldn’t be the difference between whether his kids make it or not," said Kanjian, a Republican appointed to his commission seat in August by Gov. Charlie Crist. "We’re a society that’s better than that."

Kanjian added autism insurance to Palm Beach County’s legislative priority list, which means the county’s legislative staff and $370,000 private lobbying team will push the issue in the spring session.

It’s an uphill battle. Insurance companies across the country have opposed such efforts, arguing that as additional coverages are mandated, premiums for all policyholders rise.

But in Tallahassee, the effort has a powerful ally in Senate Democrat Steve Geller of Cooper City. Geller has been trying get autism insurance mandated for years, but he sees more opportunity this spring. It’s his final session in a long legislative career.

"I feel really, really strongly about this issue," he said. "I’m going to see if I can persuade some people who might not otherwise vote for it. This is my going-away present."

Geller said he’ll likely go for a $10,000 or $12,000 yearly coverage limit for autism treatments — less than what advocates want, but "a lot better than nothing," he said.

Autism is a brain-development disorder that impedes normal social and communication skills. There’s a broad spectrum of autism patients. In severe cases or without early treatment, autistic children spend their adult lives institutionalized.

There is no cure, and researchers are unsure what causes autism, although it is believed to be an inherited disorder.

Jack has a moderate case. Like many kids with autism, he didn’t respond to his name as a toddler, struggled to communicate and fixated on inanimate objects. He’d stare at ceiling fans and roll his toy trucks back and forth for hours, watching the wheels.

Once his parents got the autism diagnosis, the Kanjians took immediate action. They put him in the exhaustive one-on-one therapy sessions, running about 40 hours a week. He started achieving real breakthroughs when his 7-year-old sister, Hannah, started to talk. Suddenly, he had a model for how to communicate and to interact.

Jack’s made such progress, his parents don’t even tell his sports team coaches that he has autism.

But such treatments are out of reach even for most upper-middle class families. Many take out second mortgages to pay for the treatments and end up in debt and divorce, according to autism advocates.

Seventeen states mandate some level of autism coverage, although New York-based Autism Speaks, an advocacy organization, says only four states offer adequate benefits. South Carolina has the most comprehensive plan with a yearly coverage limit of $50,000 for autism treatment, said Elizabeth Emken, the group’s vice president of government relations.

"It’s an issue that’s time has come, frankly," she said. "Nobody’s really debating that these kids need this. The argument is who should pay for it?"

Kanjian, a former Palm Beach county School Board member, said he views autism insurance as a good business decision. Kids with autism in special-needs schools cost the school district about $23,000 a year, triple an average student. And having autism patients institutionalized as adults can cost the state millions later in life, he said.

"You’re going to save their lives," he said. "But second, what a great investment."

Anne Kanjian, watching her son flip through his dinosaur book, added: "He’s going to grow up and go to college and maybe find the cure for autism."

Staff Writer Josh Hafenbrack can be reached at or 561-228-5508.

Copyright © 2007, South Florida Sun-Sentinel