Advocates looking to convince lawmakers to pass the autism insurance measure roamed the halls of the General Assembly to speak to legislators early in July.
Advocates looking to convince lawmakers to pass the autism insurance measure roamed the halls of the General Assembly last summer to speak to legislators. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

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By Michelle Andrews

Kaiser Health News

It’s getting easier for parents of young children with autism to get insurers to cover a pricey treatment called applied behavioral analysis. Once kids turn 21, however, it’s a different ballgame entirely.

Advocates looking to convince lawmakers to pass the autism insurance measure roamed the halls of the N.C. General Assembly to speak to legislators early in July. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

Many states have mandates that require insurers to cover this therapy, but they typically have age caps ranging from 17 to 21, says Katie Keith, research director at the Trimpa Group, a consulting firm that works with autism advocacy groups. In addition, the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services recently announced that all Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Programs for low-income families must cover comprehensive autism treatment for kids – until they’re 21.

Unfortunately, once someone with autism turns 21, “they fall off a cliff,” says Lorri Unumb, vice president of state government affairs at Autism Speaks, an advocacy organization. “It’s the next big frontier that’s got to be addressed.”

Parents of older children have a few options. Some state autism mandates don’t have age caps, including New York, California, Massachusetts, the District of Columbia, Wisconsin and Indiana, according to Keith.

If an insurer denies  therapy and a parent lives in one of the states that has an age cap on its autism mandate, it’s worth appealing, Unumb believes. The appeal may be bolstered, she said, by the federal mental health parity law, which bars plans from imposing quantitative or qualitative treatment limitations on mental health care that are more restrictive than those on benefits for physical health conditions.

Like dollar caps on benefits, age is a quantitative limit, says Unumb.

Although the courts have yet to address the issue, she says, “In my opinion, all of these age caps are probably invalid under mental health parity.”

Note: North Carolina does not have an insurance mandate requiring that insurers cover applied behavioral analysis therapy. A proposal to create such a requirement passed the N.C. House of Representatives in 2013 but died in the Senate at the end of this year’s legislative session.

Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health policy research and communication organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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