Autism bill, other measures set to take effect

One of the new laws set to take effect in Alaska will require health insurance policies to cover treatment of autism spectrum disorders.

All or portions of a number of bills became law, effective Tuesday, with the start of 2013. Another new measure provides tax incentives to encourage oil and gas exploration outside the North Slope and Cook Inlet.

A part of the autism bill took effect earlier, establishing a task force to study issues such as the state providing insurance coverage for the disorder.

The debate over autism coverage was one of the most emotional during the last regular session of the Legislature, as families and advocates descended on the Capitol to tell their stories and lobby for change.

Supporters cast the bill as a way to help children while easing the financial and emotional strain that families face in getting treatment.

Some insurance companies opposed the measure, saying it was unfair to put the burden on private companies.

However, Amy Carter, a spokeswoman for Premera Blue Cross Blue Shield, said the insurer now expects rates to rise at a lower level than initially predicted. She said Monday that Premera estimates its small and large group customers will see variable rate increases of less than 2 percent, while no impact on rates is expected at this time for individual members.

Sen. Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, a primary sponsor of the Senate bill, said in an email that “the state has consistently adopted state-mandated coverage as part of its standard health plan for state employees,” even though there was no requirement to do so.

“This has held true for coverage of breast cancer, prostate cancer screenings, well-baby exams and numerous other medical conditions,” he said. “Insurance coverage for autism should be no different, and I would expect and hope this happens after the next round of labor contract negotiations.”

Gov. Sean Parnell let the bill become law without his signature. He said the measure exempted about 20,000 small Alaska businesses from its effects while requiring insurance companies to provide coverage in policies purchased on the private market by larger employees.

Autism and autism spectrum disorder are general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development characterized by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors.

In a letter to legislative leaders in June, Parnell cited the benefits of early diagnosis and treatment and said opponents didn’t provide detailed analyses for their assertions that premium costs could rise by 3 percent a year.

He said he would remain open to amending the law if compelling evidence emerges.

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