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Health care reform law changes lives

Rachel Sullivan, Reporter

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Alabama passed House bill 284 in March 2017 requiring insurance companies to cover applied behavior analysis care to autistic children. The mandate for insurance plans will not take effect until December 2018, but it is already affecting the lives of those who have fought to make it happen.

ABA is a form of therapy usually administered by a technician under the supervision of a  board certified behavioral analyst at an autism therapy center. Out of pocket it can cost over $45,000 a year according to Special Learning, Inc.

“With kids with autism, early identification and early intervention is key,” Dr. Abigail Baxter said, professor in the Department of Leadership and Teacher Education at USA and project director of Passage USA. “ABA is the oldest research-based intervention and provides the support those kids need to be successful.”

Mobile native Cheryl Ankrom found out in 2014 how the lack of ABA coverage and availability in Alabama would affect her family when her 2 year old twins were both diagnosed with autism.

“Having no legislation in place to help pay for ABA therapy not only meant that there was a financial issue, but also a lack of providers,” Ankrom said. “In April of 2015, I moved with my twins to Mishawaka, Indiana, to live with my husband’s mother so we could purchase insurance on the open marketplace to cover ABA therapy for the twins, specifically my son, who was then 3 and a half.”

Ankrom witnessed improvement in her children as they began receiving ABA therapy as well as relief that insurance in Indiana helped the significant financial burden.

“My son has been at BACA (Behavioral Analysis Center for Autism) since July of 2015,” Ankrom said. “He has learned to use the bathroom on his own, dress himself, speak and make simple requests and has said to me, ‘I love you mom’.  He has many less disruptive behaviors and meltdowns than before we moved and can respond to questions and instructions in ways we never imagined he would.  After one year at BACA in the Sprouts Preschool Program, my daughter who is considered high-functioning, was able to transition into a public kindergarten and was the 3rd best reader in her class.  She is not considered special needs and doesn’t need an IEP.”

The move to Indiana was not the Ankrom family’s first plan. Cheryl Ankrom made efforts in Mobile to reach out to legislators about reforming the insurance policies regarding ABA therapy and autism treatments. Mayor Sandy Stimpson declined making contact with Ankrom to support coverage for ABA therapy in the insurance plan for the Mobile Fire Rescue Department where her husband worked at the time.

“Before making the decision to move to Indiana, I advocated for autism insurance reform in Mobile by doing a 2 part news story with Modupe Idowu, a reporter for Local 15 News,” Ankrom said. “Also, I met with Lorri Unumb, who was the Director of State Government Affairs for Autism Speaks, and began a grassroots effort with other parents of autistic children in the area and across the state to begin the process to get legislation passed for the state of Alabama.  I was told at the point of the diagnosis for my son, that early intervention was key.  When we learned the lengthy process involved in working with state legislators to get a bill written and then passed, we decided it was in the best interest of my son to move where he could have immediate help.”

For many families, moving to where therapy is available is not an option. This could mean a child going years without receiving treatment, or having to resolve to lesser quality treatment that can be afforded. For Ankrom, moving meant leaving her oldest daughter, a senior in high school at the time, here in Mobile to finish school and live with her dad. Ankrom’s husband had to stay in Mobile for a year to sell their house and find a job in Indiana.

“Finally, legislation in Alabama was passed last summer for the autism insurance mandate,” Ankrom said. “The bill passed was not the same level of coverage that is available in Indiana, but is comparable to other states.  We have decided to move back to Mobile, after spending 2 and a half years in Indiana.”

While Ankrom is optimistic in the changes for Alabama, Baxter feels that this is only a stepping stone for the services that need to be made available for children with autism.

“Just ABA isn’t going to help these kids progress,” Baxter said. “It’s just one new tool in our toolbox.”

Ankrom and Baxter agree that this insurance reform was long overdue and both accredit the work of affected parents and families to being the ultimate influence in this bill.

“The holdup was politics and being willing to spend money on people,” Baxter said. “People need to know this is a good thing because it makes life easier for families and kids. It’s also a benefit to society because these kids will be able to do more because they have what they need.”

The insurance reform still has over a year before it takes full effect and there will be specific requirements in insurance companies to provide it, but the families who will finally receive ABA therapy are hopeful in seeing the steps being made because of their efforts.

To learn more about this insurance reform bill visit http://www.al.com/news/birmingham/index.ssf/2017/05/alabama_senate_to_consider_aut.html.

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Health care reform law changes lives