Advocates Push for Autism Therapy Coverage

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Kristin Bundren and her five-year-old son Reid swing in the play room at Mitchell's Place. Reid's been coming here for ABA therapy for his autism for nearly three years.
Kristin Bundren and her five-year-old son Reid swing in the play room at Mitchell's Place. Reid's been coming here for ABA therapy for his autism for nearly three years.

Esther Ciammachilli,WBHM

Five-year-old Reid Bundren was perfectly happy swinging on his own in the play room at Mitchell’s Place when his mom Kristin Bundren came to pick him up. Reid shouts “go away” over and over as Kristin walks toward him.

“My husband and I joke that we pay over a thousand dollars a week for him to talk and he tells us to go away,” Kristin says with a laugh.

Reid’s been coming to Mitchell’s Place for about three years for Applied Behavioral Analysis or ABA therapy, which teaches him the social and behavioral skills needed to succeed in school and society. Kristin Bundren says before receiving ABA, Reid never spoke. Well, he knew one word: iPad. But since he’s been in ABA therapy, Reid’s been transformed.

“He now has thousands of words. He sings me songs, he reads me books,” Bundren says. “He can ask for things he wants. He says ‘Mommy, daddy, I love you.’ And so his communication has completely taken off.”

The Bundrens pay about $60,000 a year for Reid’s therapy. Kristin Bundren says if it wasn’t for help from her family, they probably couldn’t afford it. That’s why Bundren hopes the Alabama House of Representatives passes HB284. It would require that insurance companies cover autism therapy. Alabama is one of just five states that doesn’t offer health care coverage for autism. Many children with autism require therapy like ABA. However, it’s expensive and many Alabama families can’t afford it.

The Business Council of Alabama opposes the bill saying coverage would be expensive and would increase premiums. The council declined to be interviewed for this story, but according to the advocacy group Autism Speaks, the average cost to insure autism-related services in other states was less than a dollar per month, per premium.

Leading the legislative charge is Bama Hager with the Autism Society of Alabama. Her son has autism and receives ABA therapy.

“If my son had cerebral palsy, if my son had Down’s Syndrome my son would be covered and he’s not,” she says. “So, I pay my premiums to assist other folks in covering their medical conditions. It makes sense to me that people should pay their premiums to assist my family. That’s how insurance works,” Hager says.

The legislature passed the Riley Ward Act in 2012, which gives private insurance companies the option to cover ABA. Hager says to this date, no insurer in Alabama does this. Under federal law, Medicaid covers some autism services. But she says that’s not really happening in Alabama either.

“And it is something that could lead to a lawsuit,” she says. “I know that right now in the state of Alabama that the Medicaid agency is looking very closely into how to get that coverage in place for ABA therapy.”

Hager estimates about 40,000 Alabamians have autism. She warns that without early intervention and treatments like ABA, children with autism will grow into adults who deal with those same debilitating social conditions. But, she says, with the right therapy, they could grow up to be productive, tax-paying citizens that lead meaningful, independent lives.