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Autism Bill Riles Health Insurers, Rallies Advocates

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Jennifer Kashinejad is racing time to rescue her son. With an insurance company unwilling to chip in, she's also racing against her wallet.

Diagnosed at 2 with autism, Aden, now 4, did not speak until last year and only after sustained speech therapy that cost “thousands of dollars a year,” she says.

Kashinejad and her husband, Doni, struggled to scrape up the money. “I always tell everybody if I have to sell my house, I'll sell my house,” she says. “I'll do everything I have to to save my son.”

That includes lending her voice to a groundswell of parents supporting a bill during this year's General Assembly session requiring health insurance companies to pay for autism treatment, which for some parents can run upward of $50,000 a year.

“We're not asking something for nothing. I pay into insurance and I just want what my son deserves,” Kashinejad says.

 With more than 1.5 million Americans suffering from the developmental disorder, proponents say insurers have an obligation to treat autism like any other chronic health condition.

Delegate Sam Nixon, R-Chesterfield, says he's sympathetic to the causes of the disabled, but opposes the bill on the grounds that it would hurt coverage for others. 

“Virginia ranks as having the first or second highest number of mandated benefits of any state,” he says, noting that those mandates “are meant to help people with very serious medical conditions — but they also have the effect of increasing the cost of health care for everyone. … We're actually pushing people out of medical insurance by continuing to raise rates.”

Supporters of the bill, who organized a rally on Capitol Square last week, say it's pay now or pay more later.

Some independent studies estimate autism in the United States already costs $100 billion a year. About 90 percent is spent on adult services, including long-term state or federally subsidized residential care for patients unable to live independently. That cost is expected to spiral in the coming decade to between $250 and $400 billion a year.

Proponents of the bill say those costs could potentially be cut in half with early treatment, which greatly increases the chance of living independently later in life.

“I'm not talking about curing, I'm just saying they have the opportunity to overcome, so they can become independent, productive, tax-paying citizens,” Kashinejad says. “If you invest now, your return is so much greater.”

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