Autism families fight for coverage

Charity Coleman, right, offers a gumball to Jordan Marshall Thursday at the Capitol to bring attention to a stalled SB 74, a bill requiring insurance coverage for autism spectrum disorders. Coleman's daughter, Selena, center, 14, has Rett syndrome, a form of autism. The bill is currently being held in the House Health and Social Services Committee by Chairman Rep. Wes Keller. Coleman said a gumball represents the cost of covering one child for a month for the added insurance costs.

Tearful pleas haven’t been enough to move a bill requiring some autism coverage under insurance plans, but supporters spent the day in the Capitol making a final effort.

Senate Bill 74 remains in the House Health and Social Services Committee, where chair Wes Keller, R-Wasilla, is refusing to move the bill.

Among those seeking action on the bill was Rep. Dan Saddler, R-Anchorage, a parent of a child with autism who said he doesn’t want other families to go through what his had to go through to get treatment for his son.

That included refinancing his house, borrowing money from family, stresses he said in other cases have broken up families.

Saddler told the committee supporting the bill would be good for both families and the state.

“You save the state lots of money over a lifetime in reduced social services, in care, and you keep families together so kids are not dropped on the state at state expense for care,” he said.

Sen. Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, sponsored the bill in the Senate, which gave it bipartisan support.

“I truly believe its passing will save marriages and keep families together,” he said.

The Capitol has heard tearful pleas for passage of the bill, but these came from legislators such as Saddler.

He urged the Legislature to act this year.

“Every year that there is no action … more children slip into darkness,” Saddler said.

Saddler’s fellow representatives on the committee gave him a warm welcome. All but Keller are co-sponsors.

Committee member Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, said the bill has strong support throughout the House, if only it could reach the floor.

“I think it would pass overwhelmingly,” she said.

Of the House’s 40 members, 28 are co-sponsors.

“We’ve had amazing testimony,” she said. “I guess the most important to me is that, with proper treatment, children can enter first grade and not have anything indistinguishable from their peers.”

Lorri Unumb with the national group Autism Speaks visited Alaska this week for the last-ditch effort, with affected families delivering gumballs to legislative offices to demonstrate the low cost of adding the coverage to insurance policies.

“It’s the price of a gumball to cover a child with autism,” Kerttula said.

Keller said the bill had problems, though.

“We don’t mean to be insensitive,” he said.

The National Federation of Independent Businesses and insurer Premera Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alaska oppose the bill, saying it would harm the economy and raise costs for businesses.

Premera’s Sheela Tallman said the bill was unfair because it only covered private insurance plans. It would raise coverage costs by 3 percent in Alaska, she said.

Unumb said other states that have instituted similar mandates had seen far lower cost increases than projected. In five states to implement coverage, it increased costs per member per month by 15 cents in the first year, and 31 cents the second year after it was well known. Tallman said she did not have an equivalent cost per member per month estimate available.

Tallman called the coverage requirement “burdensome” and a “one-size-fits-all mandate.” The state shouldn’t tell private insurers what to cover, she said.

Kerttula said there are already more than a dozen coverages required by law.

The meeting concluded without Keller moving the bill.

Rep. Charisse Millett, R-Anchorage, a bill co-sponsor, said later Keller told her he would not be holding another hearing on the bill. She said legislators should consider taking the unusual step of removing the bill from committee over Keller’s objections.

Challenging a chairperson’s authority is rarely done, but Millett is not part of the Republican-led House Majority that named Keller as chairman of the Health and Social Services Committee.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or at


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