Traverse City Record-Eagle

March 23, 2012

Diagnosis, treatment of autism worth the price to Michigan


---- — For parents of children with autism, it's a ray of light — a chance for their child to get the kinds of treatment that could lead to a fuller, more complete life, something most parents of these children could never hope to afford.

The state Senate this month passed a package of bills that will require insurers to cover an autism diagnosis and treatment, which can run into the tens of thousands of dollars a year.

To make that possible, the bills also direct the state Licensing and Regulatory Affairs Department to create an autism coverage "incentive" program that insurance carriers and third-party administrators could apply to for reimbursement.

The cost to the state is expected to come in at $15 million in the first year.

Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, a vocal advocate of the coverage and the parent of a child with autism, said the bills will eventually save taxpayers money.

This is a classic case of investing now to spend less later, but with an ethical imperative that puts the debate in a new light: With the proper diagnosis and treatment, many of these children can look forward to college, a career and an independent life.

Without that promise of treatment, we get what we get now — the reality that many of these children will eventually become wards of the state and live lives of dependence.

While Calley says providing diagnosis and treatment to children with autism could save the state $13 billion, even a much more modest return — even half that — is astounding. And who can put a price on a full and rewarding life?

For those seeking full parity for mental health insurance, the autism bills weren't a victory. But that does not mean the wider fight shouldn't continue.

The massive gap in insurance coverage between physical and mental ailments is a scandal in a society that spends billions on fast food and reality TV.

Not being able to close that gap in Michigan today cannot take away from the promise of autism treatments.

Nine Senate Republicans — including Traverse City's Howard Walker — voted against the bills. They unsuccessfully argued to cap spending at up to $45 million and add a sunset provision.

The bills are now in a House committee, and are expected to pass. Gov. Rick Snyder said he'll sign them.

Michigan has taken a major step in the struggle to overcome autism. With treatment within reach, thousands of Michigan children may have a better future.