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WV Legislature commemorates World Autism Day

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Don't be surprised if you look up at the Capitol dome tonight and see it has turned blue.

It's not an alien invasion, rather a way to commemorate World Autism Day.

Autism Spectrum Disorder affects 1 of every 88 children, mostly boys, born in the United States. The prevalence of autism and related Asperger's Syndrome has skyrocketed in recent decades and scientists have yet to pinpoint a cause. What scientists do know, however, is that early diagnosis and intervention, specifically Applied Behavioral Analysis, help defray some of the debilitating aspects of Autism Spectrum Disorder.

That's why the Legislature in 2011 passed a bill mandating state insurance companies cover ABA therapies up to $30,000 per year. The Legislature went back last year to clean up some technical language in the bill, and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin singed it into law.

Why is the Legislature so concerned about children with autism? For some, the disorder hits extremely close to home.

"That's not just a big problem. That's an epidemic," Delegate Mark Hunt, D-Kanawha, said of the statistic.

"This Legislature took it on its own to help alleviate some of that problem. One-in-67 children being born with autism — statistics show only 25 percent of those children will ever be self-sufficient." But with treatment, Hunt pointed out, half of the children on the Autism spectrum could become self-sufficient.

Hunt's young son has been diagnosed with autism. Other delegates, including Delegate Denise Campbell, D-Randolph, also have children with autism. Campbell's son, Logan, made cookies for each delegate to thank them for passing the Autism insurance coverage bill.

Hunt said he spoke with Ted Cheatham, executive director of the Public Employee's Insurance Agency to find out just how much the autism insurance coverage bill cost the agency. Cheatham's response was a bit of a surprise.

"We saw some big fiscal notes, but it's going to cost less than $1 million for PEIA, which comes out to less than $1 (per policy holder)," Hunt said. "That's less than buying a Coke from the Coke machine."

And now that the Legislature has an idea of how much the insurance coverage will cost the state, Hunt has bigger plans. West Virginia has already created a trust fund for children with autism, where parents can contribute up to $2,000 a year. That money will be used to care for the child after the parents have died.

"There's going to be substantial money in that fund by the time that parent dies and the child is left alone," Hunt said of the trust fund, noting he hopes one day the state can match contributions. Doing so would mean the child, once grown, wouldn't have to depend on Medicaid or other state agencies for care.

"That would actually be a great help to that child and to West Virginia," Hunt said of his plan.

Hunt also said he'd like to see the insurance coverage bill extended to require all health insurance plans to cover ABA therapies. Under current law, plans for small-group employers, those who employ 50 people or fewer, are exempt from the mandated coverage.

"We excluded those families and those families are still suffering—those children are still suffering," Hunt said of children who are not covered by small-group plans. "This state will pay for it one way or another. … When those parents die, those children who have little or no help and they're the 75 percent who are not self-sufficient, some Legislature in the future will take care of them."

The House of Delegates read a citation recognizing April 2 as World Autism Day.  The citation had 16 sponsors including Hunt, Campbell, Speaker Rick Thompson and Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, who was the sponsor of last year's insurance coverage bill.

Members of the Legislature also sported blue electric tea light candles on their desks during today's floor sessions. Lawmakers and guests are invited to attend a ceremony this evening where the dome will be lit blue in commemoration of World Autism Day.