You may know a child with an autism spectrum disorder, or ASD. It’s a very common condition. One in every 68 children has it, and many families share the same stories.
A child is developing just like you’d expect: talking, gesturing, communicating, acquiring language and expressing the full range of a child’s emotions. But at some point, you start to notice something’s wrong. His communicating seems to just stop. He stops making eye contact. Weeks and months pass, and it’s the same. Nothing’s improving. Sometimes the problems include impulse control and wandering off – a lot. In extreme cases, there’s even violence, asocial behavior and self-harm. These are common experiences of ASD.
There is therapy for this, known as ABA. But autism therapy in Mississippi is scarce and very expensive – too expensive for most families. As we know, families will do anything to help their children. Some have left Mississippi to seek therapy elsewhere. Some spouses quit their job so a child can get therapy through Medicaid. This was Mississippi’s story, until now.
We have an amazing development to report. Mississippi has made autism therapy more available and more affordable, thanks to the hard work of families and therapy providers, legislators and other policy makers. In 2015, the legislature mandated that insurance companies sell autism therapy policies for children through age eight. That was a huge step, and some young children started getting therapy. But soon after that law passed, another problem became clear: children of all ages need autism therapy, and a nine year old regresses without it.
In the usual course, you would expect delay upon delay. But something was different this time. Parents and activists lined up again this year, this time with an even bigger goal. They told state government to lift the age cap on autism insurance altogether. After Senator Gray Tollison and Rep. Steve Massengill introduced their bills to lift the state’s age cap on autism therapy, heads turned and other lawmakers signed on. Many legislators had friends or relatives facing the same struggle. They heard from many other members and constituents. On this rare issue, there was unanimity at the capitol.
Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann and Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney have led on this issue for years, and they took up the cause again. As Chaney later said, he told the insurance companies “you’re going to do it, or you’re going to have legislation telling you to do it.” So they did it. The state’s big insurance companies announced that they would voluntarily lift the age cap altogether on therapy for autism spectrum disorders in Mississippi. You read that right. Major insurers announced they will remove the age cap for autism therapy policies. If they follow through, this puts Mississippi at the forefront of states in getting children covered for the autism therapy they need. Hopefully other companies will follow their lead.
We should give the insurers credit for their words; let’s hope they follow through with deeds. If they do, thousands of Mississippi children with autism spectrum disorders will not have to grow up helpless. They will have a chance to speak to their parents, to cope in social settings, to hold jobs they never could have held. Of course, families will still have to afford expensive policies to begin with, but providing insurance coverage to all ages is a very strong start.
This was a policy victory for all of us. As one national autism advocate said: “You can’t believe all they’re doing for autism in [Mississippi].” Well, you can believe it now.
Will Longwitz is an attorney and the founder of Inside Capitol LLC, a lobbying, policy & advocacy firm.
He currently works on education, health care and other issues.