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Health benefits raised for autistics; Governor signs legislation into law

By Staff | May 21, 2008

Since it was first identified in 1943, the neurological disorder autism has, for the most part, been shrouded in misunderstanding by those in the medical community and the public.

Since it affects a person’s behavior and communication skills, and exists within a varying spectrum, it has often been mistaken for someone who is shy or withdrawn.

This misunderstanding has led many insurance providers to not offer autism treatment and therapy — at least until Tuesday when Gov. Charlie Crist signed the “Window of Opportunity Act,” which mandates that Florida insurance companies cover the disorder.

Since Monday, Crist has been signing into law a series of health-related bills. On Tuesday he signed Senate Bill 2654, which increases health insurance benefits for autism and developmental disability therapies.

“Autism affects thousands of Florida’s families, and this legislation is a step in the right direction toward helping them receive much needed resources that will improve the quality of their children’s lives,” said Crist.

The legislation allows the Office of Insurance Regulation to convene a work group that includes health insurance carriers to negotiate an agreement to increase the coverage of therapy and treatment.

The legislation also sets a mandated benefit for autism coverage under the Steven A. Geller Autism Coverage Act. The benefit would be $36,000 a year and $200,000 over a lifetime for autism screening and treatment.

“It is unconscionable that in the wealthiest nation in the world, we are choosing to throw out children instead of healing them,” said Sen. Steven Geller, D-Hallandale Beach, the bill’s sponsor.

Christine Whalen, a Cape Coral grandmother of three autistic children, said that because her grandchildren are covered under Medicaid, she is concerned whether they will receive the necessary coverage. Her daughter, Kelly, the children’s mother, is a single mom who lost her house to a fire one year ago. The home has since been rebuilt.

“Hopefully, certain professionals will give this to my daughter who has Medicaid. She is not getting all the professional help she needs (for the children) because she doesn’t have medical insurance,” said Whalen.

Tuesday afternoon a representative from the governor’s office verified that the legislation not only focuses on various insurance carriers across the state, but will also include coverage under Medicaid.

In March, Crist established the Governor’s Task Force on Autism Spectrum Disorders to find strategies to address the disorder throughout the state. On Tuesday, the governor was joined by former Miami Dolphins football player Dan Marino, co-chair of the task force.

“For more than 10 years, families and friends of children with autism in the state of Florida have worked to assure that these children are not excluded from insurance coverage,” said Marino. “With the signing of this bill by Gov. Crist, thousands of children with autism in our state will have a chance at a better life.”