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(Keith Johnson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jeremy and Andrea Griggs look at a family photo album with their son Jaxson, 12, who is autistic, at the home they are renting in Murray, Utah. The Griggs, who have another autistic son, had to sell the home they built in West Jordan to pay for therapy that isn't covered by insurance in Utah. SB57, once signed by the governor, will require some health plans to cover autism treatment beginning in 2016.
Who will Utah autism insurance mandate help, leave out?
Health reform » At least for now, SB57 applies only to a portion of the insurance market.
First Published Mar 17 2014 10:33 am • Last Updated Mar 18 2014 11:32 am

Families of children with autism scored a major victory this legislative session with passage of a bill requiring health insurers to cover autism treatment.

Once signed into law, SB57 will prevent "incalculable anguish" for many parents struggling to afford expensive Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) therapy for their kids, said sponsoring Sen. Brian Shiozawa, R-Cottonwood Heights.

At a glance

Winners and losers

Only large employer and individual health plans sold or renewed starting Jan. 1, 2016, are subject to SB57’s autism coverage mandate.

Once signed by the governor, the new law would require plans to cover 600 hours of behavioral therapy annually for children between the ages of 2 and 9, with families picking up co-payments and deductibles. Coverage would also include pharmaceuticals, psychiatric and psychological treatment, occupational and speech therapy and medical treatments.

Small businesses and self-insured companies are exempt — the exception being the state of Utah, including schools and colleges.

Another bill, HB88, will pick up some of the slack, making Utah’s autism “lottery” permanent. Lawmakers approved the $2 million measure, which will provide ABA therapy to about 270 autistic children through a lottery run by Utah’s Medicaid program. HB88 also adds autism benefits to the Public Employee Health Plan, which covers many city and county employees.

Following is a breakdown of insured Utahns who fall under the umbrella of SB57 — and those who don’t.

Mandated coverage

470,910 Large group policyholders

157,707 Individual policyholders

90,000 State employees

No mandated coverage

782,236 Residents covered by self-insured policies

192,955 Small group policyholders

244,724 Medicaid enrollees

37,700 Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) enrollees

Source: Utah Health Insurance Market Report, 2012

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But not all parents, and not immediately.

Only large employer and individual health plans sold or renewed starting Jan. 1, 2016, are subject to the mandate. Small businesses and self-insured companies are exempt, letting some of Utah’s largest employers off the hook.

Among the biggest: Intermountain Healthcare.

The nonprofit hospital chain markets autism care, and its doctors prescribe it, but it doesn’t cover those services for its 33,000 employees, said Shane Baker, the husband of an Intermountain employee and father of a 4-year-old boy with autism. "It’s very ironic."

Baker had to pick up a second job to pay for ABA therapy for his son. His wife’s health plan doesn’t cover the treatment, nor does it cover his son’s occupational or physical therapy, since autism is his primary diagnosis. Only recently did it start paying for his speech therapy, coming into voluntary compliance with the Affordable Care Act, said Baker, who hopes Intermountain will be similarly swayed to adhere to SB57.

"We’ve gotten the sense lately that they may reconsider their benefits," he said.

And the sooner, the better, he added. "We could spend more time being a parent, instead of hassling over claims, doing the therapy ourselves or working extra jobs to pay for it. To spend time just being with my son, loving my son, that would mean the world to me."

Asked whether changes are afoot, Intermountain issued the following statement: "Each year Intermountain evaluates and updates its insurance coverage for employees considering the local market and the needs of employees and their families. The evaluation includes a review of the clinical services, cost, and benefits offered by competing organizations."

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Other major managed care networks provide autism coverage, including the renowned Mayo Clinic, according to the Utah Autism Coalition.

Starting a trend? » Closer to home, the University of Utah and its hospitals and clinics are considering adding autism coverage this summer, months before the mandate takes hold, said spokeswoman Kathy Wilets.

For the U., change is inevitable. Under a law passed two years ago, any insurance mandate imposed on the private sector must also apply to the public sector — specifically, the state of Utah, including public schools and colleges.

But Autism Coalition president Jon Owen is confident corporate giants will follow suit. "I’ve seen it happening in other states and I hear about it happening here," said Owen.

He points to a 2011 Mercer HealthCare Survey showing 78 percent of large employers offer some autism benefit and 31 percent voluntarily include intensive behavioral therapy such as ABA. Among them are firms with a large presence in Utah, including Home Depot, American Express, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Adobe Systems, Inc. and Oracle.

Deseret Mutual, the health plan for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, declined to say whether it’s considering adding autism treatment to its list of benefits.

"While Deseret Mutual Benefit Administrators provides medical coverage and many services for people with autism, our health plan administrators are always researching and evaluating new, emerging treatments to better the lives of our clients," said church spokesman, Cody Craynor.

Still, Owen is optimistic, noting employees who don’t have to worry about health care are happier, more financially stable and more productive, and firms are recognizing those less tangible, "quality of life" benefits.

Unintended consequences » But SB57 could also have the opposite effect and cause more employers to self-insure as a means to avoid the mandate.

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