reWorking Michigan: Autism Insurance Creates Job Opportunities

May 6, 2012

Therapy for children with autism can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Until now, that kind of treatment was unaffordable for many parents of autistic children.  But a new Michigan law will soon require insurance companies to cover autism diagnosis and treatment for children and teenagers.  This law is also expected to create  hundreds or perhaps thousands of new jobs for people who are trained to treat autistic children.

Stacie Rulison’s son was diagnosed with autism when he was three years old.  At the time, Rulison and her husband were advised to get the best behavioral therapy they could find.   Rulison says she was shocked to find out that insurance wouldn’t cover therapy for her son.  It didn’t even cover the cost of the diagnosis.

“At the time, I thought you have got to be kidding me, they’re not covering diagnosis?” says Rulison.  “Then the bell went off in my head.  If they’re not covering diagnosis, likely they’re not going to cover treatment either.”

Rulison knew that therapy could help autistic children with learning, communication and social skills.  So, they hired a therapist to work with their son and paid for it out of pocket.  Rulison says before the therapy, her son had never said the word “Mom.”

 “Within a week, he said “Mom,” says Rulison.  “Then it was “Dad,” and then his brother’s name, and then words became phrases and phrases became sentences.  Within a six month time period, he grew over 12 months cognitively.  Now, he’s seven years old and mainstreamed into a first grade classroom with no support.  At that time, would I have thought that ever we would have been able to do something like that?  Absolutely not.”  

It’s estimated that in Michigan, there are more than 15,000 school-age children and another 4,000 pre-school children with autism.   The recommended treatment is called Applied Behavioral Analysis Therapy or ABA therapy. 

James Todd teaches ABA therapy at Eastern Michigan University, and is secretary-treasurer of the Behavior Analysis Association of Michigan.  He says when insurance coverage kicks in on October first, thousands of parents will be looking for treatment.  He says parents are already calling around to figure out where they can find therapy providers.

“People who previously couldn’t even get diagnosed might now go to the doctor,” says Todd.  “This is especially true for example in minority communities, where getting an $800, $1,000, or $3,000 assessment is simply out of the question, especially if it doesn’t lead to any treatment. So, I would anticipate we’re talking several thousand people who need some sort of insurance-covered treatments.”

But there aren’t nearly enough qualified therapists in Michigan.  Colleen Allen is executive director of the Autism Alliance of Michigan.  She says the state will need about 600 more behavior analysts and 7,000 licensed therapists. 

“The reason why we have that shortage is because we have not had a service that is reimbursable for those professions,” says Allen. “Now that we have it, we will be able to keep the graduates from the programs, and we’ll be able to bring back those that have left and wanted to stay in Michigan and are looking to come back home.”

The existing clinics that have been providing therapy for autistic children are in the best position to add therapists and expand their services.  Allen says she also expects that new clinics will pop up around the state.

“There will be professionals who are trying to earn a dollar off the new insurance,” says Allen.  “We just want to make sure that they’re qualified.  Now we have a whole new reimbursement structure. What we don’t want to see is anybody throwing up a shingle and claiming they can provide therapy for children with autism.”

Getting insurance coverage passed in Michigan was just the first step in a long process.  Allen says now parents, insurers, care providers, and universities must all work together to make sure the potential of that legislation is fulfilled.


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