A teary-eyed military wife and mother of an autistic child thanked U.S. Rep. John B. Larson Tuesday for introducing legislation that calls for better coverage of autism.
Rachel Kenyon, wife of Sergeant Major William Kenyon of Connecticut’s National Guard, told her struggles Tuesday to a room full of supporters invested in improving the lives of individuals with autism. It was the same story she told to Larson more than a year ago at a home in West Hartford.
When Kenyon learned that her daughter had autism while her husband was deployed, she also learned that autism treatments offered by TRICARE’s Extended Care Health Option (ECHO) carried an arbitrary dollar cap that limits care to less than half of what is recommended by the medical community. She then learned that every dollar used for respite care or medical equipment was one less dollar for autism treatment. Also upsetting was the fact that retired soldiers were being stripped of autism benefits for their children entirely.
TRICARE’s insurance coverage for military families has a reputation for setting a nationwide standard of care for medical conditions from breast cancer to traumatic brain injury, Kenyon said. The federal program now has another opportunity to provide the best practice in medical care for thousands of military children diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder like her five-year-old daughter.
Like many others, Larson admitted he was “unaware of the enormous gap that existed in our TRICARE system.” After talking to Kenyon for just a few minutes, his mission was to close the gap.
Larson said his bill, which had been a stand alone bill before it became an amendment to the Defense Reauthorization bill, initially met resistance from the Pentagon because of its high cost and the Pentagon’s lack of expertise regarding autism. But after changes were made, it passed the House with bipartisan support. It still has to pass the Senate and be signed by the president before becoming law.
“Bipartisan differences can be overcome when you put the American people and when you put the agenda of the country first. And that’s what Democrats and Republicans did,” Larson said.
If approved, the bill will cost $30 million in fiscal year 2013 and a total of $1.3 billion over the next 10 years. The cost of it will be offset by cuts elsewhere in the Defense Authorization bill.
Shannon Knall, of Autism Speaks, said Larson introduced an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that will provide access to evidence-based therapy like Applied Behavior Analysis, to all military families.
Judith Ursitti, director for state government affairs for Autism Speaks, said before this bill passed the House some military parents signed up for additional tours of duty so as not to lose access to the treatment their autistic children needed.
Autism Speaks, founded six years ago, has worked on federal legislation, funded research for the treatment of autism, and worked to pass autism insurance legislation.
“There clearly are disparities for access to treatment across the state and across the nation. The payment systems are overwhelmingly complicated and limited and don’t cover the cost of providing the competence of care that our children need,” Lynn Ricci, senior vice president of administration at the Hospital for Special Care, said.
The Caring for Military Kids with Autism amendment is the first step to overcoming the battle, Knall said.
She explained that this step is an important victory and if the battle continues to be fought then someday all children with autism will have access to appropriate services.