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As Session Wanes, Parents Urge Passage of Autism Bill

March 30, 2012|By Dan Fiorucci | Channel 2 News

JUNEAU, Alaska — With just 15 days now officially left in the state legislative session, parents of autistic children are worried that lawmakers will fail to act on Senate Bill 74. The measure would make Alaska the 30th state in the country to mandate that health insurers provide coverage for autism.

Just this week, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that one in 88 children will be diagnosed with autism. That's up sharply from the CDC's previous estimate of one child in 110. No one is yet sure what causes autism, but one thing is clear: with early intervention, many autistic children can grow up to lead healthy, productive lives free of institutionalization.

In fact, the 29 states that have autism coverage have found that it isn't very expensive. It runs about 15 to 30 cents per month extra on everybody's health insurance policy. Supporters of the bill say that what it buys in return is an early diagnosis, early intervention -- and a normal, happy life for a child. Not only are the outcomes humane, they're cost-effective too.

Sen. Johnny Ellis (D-Anchorage) says that over the course of a lifetime, early diagnosis and intervention in autism can save the state more than $200,000 in special-education costs, and millions more over the lifetime of someone who suffers from the disorder. That's because intervening early -- before the neural pathways of a child's brain have fully formed -- can disrupt much of the asocial behavior of a child with autism.

Six-year-old Mhina Richardson of Juneau would seem to be living proof of the benefits of early intervention. A year and a half ago, she was diagnosed with autism. Her mother, Beth, took her to therapists. Today, to an outsider, she looks and acts like any healthy, happy 6-year-old. Her mom can still tell that Mhina has challenges, but she also insists the early intervention made a big difference.

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"She's doing really well now," Beth Richardson said.

On Friday, Beth, Mhina and perhaps a dozen other people toured the state Capitol handing out gumballs to lawmakers. Their point was that for the price of those gumballs, every child in our state can be insured for autism treatment.

They are urging that lawmakers hold hearings on Senate Bill 74, and their requests have finally been heard. The House Health and Social Sciences Committee announced Friday that it would hold hearings on the measure within the next 10 days.

That's a start, but with the legislative session scheduled to end on April 15, the bill is still far from ever seeing a vote.

Email Dan Fiorucci

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