House OKs bills on autism, diabetes

By Jim Siegel, The Columbus Dispatch Original Article

Many health-insurance plans could no longer exclude coverage for diabetes or autism under bills that passed the Ohio House yesterday over objections of most Republicans.

Though the rate of autism diagnoses make it the fastest-growing disability in the United States, and studies show success with early treatment, current Ohio law explicitly allows insurance companies to exclude coverage for children and adults with the disorder.

"Today, we have the opportunity to improve the lives of thousands of families and children who are affected by autism," Rep. Ted Celeste, D-Grandview Heights, told his colleagues. "Parents are simply asking us to level the playing field."

An estimated 36,000 to 57,000 Ohioans have autism, and according to the Journal of Pediatrics in October, one in 98 children are now born with the disorder, including one in 58 boys, a stark increase over the past decade.

"What this bill really does is bring autism parity. It makes it the same as other diseases such as (multiple sclerosis) and cystic fibrosis," said Rep. Nancy Garland, D-New Albany, who co-sponsored the bill with Celeste. It was approved, 57-39.

The vote thrilled Lori Cremeans of Blacklick. She is struggling to pay off an $8,000 dental bill and is unable to afford the more than $100 per week it costs to get therapy at Nationwide Children's Hospital for her 8-year-old son, Andrew, who is autistic.

As a small-business owner, Cremeans said she has been unable to find health insurance that covers autism.

"It's just not out there," she said after watching the House vote. "I'm excited to see what this holds for us."

Doug Krinsky of Westerville, parent of an autistic 11-year-old and a volunteer chapter chairman for the advocacy group Autism Speaks, said he has seen families go into bankruptcy trying to pay costs associated with the disorder.

"For families like that, you can't measure what the bill is worth," he said.

House Bill 8 would cap autism-related insurance coverage at $36,000 a year and allow insurers to opt out if the mandate increases costs or premiums by more than 1 percent. Other states have reported cost increases of no more than 0.8 percent, Celeste said.

But 0.8 percent could mean a $120 million increase on small businesses, said Ty Pine, legislative director for the National Federation of Independent Business/Ohio.

Pine noted that neither the autism nor the diabetes bill would apply to large, self-insured companies that fall under federal regulation

"They want to put this on the people that have been creating jobs, which are the small-business owners," he said before the vote. "The (political) rhetoric is job creation. The bills on the floor today make that concept almost laughable."

The House voted 58-38 to require insurance coverage for diabetes equipment and treatment. Supporters said Ohio, where an estimated 1 million residents have diabetes, is one of only four states that do not have some type of diabetes insurance mandate.

"Not one of these states have produced data that shows premiums have risen directly because of this bill, nor have any of those states repealed their diabetes coverage bill due to increased costs," said Rep. Barbara Boyd, D-Cleveland Heights.

The bill also would create a task force to study ways to make health care more affordable for small businesses.

Rep. Kris Jordan, R-Powell, said he has Type 1 diabetes and "these things are already covered."

"We're seeing thousands of jobs leaving our state every month, and we're nickeling and diming businesses at the same time," he said.

Both bills now go to the Republican-controlled Senate for consideration.

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One bill would cap autism-related insurance coverage at $36,000 a year, with an opt-out for costs; the other would require coverage for diabetes equipment and treatment.