James Dickson, center left, gets a hug from Lu Etta Loeber during a celebration Friday at Rex's American Grill & Bar. State Senate Bill 244, on its way to Gov. Bill Ritter for approval, would require insurance carriers to cover autism spectrum disorders.

Photo by John F. Russell

James Dickson, center left, gets a hug from Lu Etta Loeber during a celebration Friday at Rex's American Grill & Bar. State Senate Bill 244, on its way to Gov. Bill Ritter for approval, would require insurance carriers to cover autism spectrum disorders.

Bill could bring financial relief for those with autism

Legislation would require insurance carriers to cover children

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— A state bill on its way to Gov. Bill Ritter's desk could provide tens of thousands of dollars of annual financial relief to families of children with autism spectrum disorders.

For Steamboat Springs resident Babette Dickson and her son James, the law would remove the pressure of how James' speech therapy has been covered by health insurance - the family's plan now covers as many as 20 visits a year, less than half the amount James needs, Dickson said.

"In his case, we're talking about speech and (applied behavior analysis), and that's probably not what we need for a full year. But we're coming from zero to $12,000, so we're not being picky," Dickson said.

If signed, state Senate Bill 244 would require insurance carriers to recognize autism spectrum disorders and to cover assessment, diagnosis and treatment of those disorders for children as old as 19. Annual coverage requirements would be $34,000 for children as old as 8 and $12,000 for children ages 9 to 19. As defined in the bill's text, "autism spectrum disorders" include "autism, Asperger's Disorder and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified."

Costs such as early intervention, occupational therapy, speech therapy and behavioral therapies such as applied behavior analysis would be covered under the annual amounts.

"I will not have to deal with the maximum number of visits per year; I will have to deal with the maximum amount of money that health insurance will cover," Dickson said.

State Senate Bill 244 passed the Colorado General Assembly on Tuesday; a date for the measure to land on Ritter's desk has not been decided. Lu Etta Loeber, executive director of the Yampa Valley Autism Program, said state autism advocates expect Gov. Ritter to sign the bill into law.

The Autism Society of America estimates the average lifetime cost of caring for a child with autism from $3.5 million to $5 million. For the past 10 years, Dickson said her son's therapy costs from $10,000 to $15,000 annually. That number falls somewhere in the middle of how much a family might spend, she said.

"This is a low cost because James' needs, they're high, but they're not as high as some very severe kids all across the country," Dickson said. With the support of the Yampa Valley Autism Program and Horizons Specialized Services, Dickson has managed to meet those costs and stay afloat financially - that does not apply to all families, she said.

"The only way I could survive is because we have the Yampa Valley Autism Program helping and covering the costs," Dickson said. "When you can find the roads, it makes the financial burden bearable, but that's because I'm trained to be savvy and very creative. : It's not that way for many families."

Yampa Valley Autism Program provides scholarships for children's therapy camps, offers need-based assistance for therapies and provides up to 10 hours of respite care each month for families. The group held a party Friday afternoon at Rex's American Grill & Bar celebrating the potential passing of state Senate Bill 244 and the efforts of parents such as Dickson, who sent e-mails supporting the bill to every lawmaker who touched it at every step of the process.

"I would follow what they were asking us to do. I would make sure I would e-mail all the members of the commission and tell them why they need to support it," Dickson said. "That's why it succeeded, that's why it passed; it was amazing the pressure that was mounting in Denver to have this bill pass."

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