WINCHESTER — Gov. Ralph Northam has signed Senate Bill 1693, sponsored by Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Upperville, to mandate health insurance coverage for the diagnosis and treatment of autism, regardless of a patient’s age.

Current law only requires coverage for patients ages 2 through 10. The bill removes that cap effective Jan.1 2020, effectively expanding coverage for 10,000 autistic Virginians, according to a news release from Northam’s office.

In an email on Monday, Vogel said she has been working on legislation to compel private health insurers to cover diagnosis and treatment of autism for 10 years.

“We made incremental progress but no person stops needing healthcare coverage for associated issues at some magic age,” she said. “Early intervention and early access to healthcare can mean the difference between a high functioning and successful adult and someone who is not... the economic impact on families who have not had access to private health insurance to cover their children has been devastating.”

Northam also signed an identical House of Delegates bill, sponsored by Del. Bob Thomas, R-Fredericksburg. Del. Chris Collins, R-Frederick County, was one of three chief co-patrons of that bill, which passed overwhelmingly.

Collins, whose 12-year-old son is autistic, carried the bill the past two legislative sessions.

Autism, a lifelong disorder, is the fastest-growing developmental disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). It affects about one in 59 children born today. Legislation passed in 2011 required coverage for the diagnosis and treatment of autism spectrum disorder for children ages 2 to 6. In 2015, the General Assembly passed legislation raising the age cap to age 10.

Nichole Pangle, executive director of the Arc of the Northern Shenandoah Valley, a local advocacy group for people with developmental disabilities, said the passage of the law is “a major victory” for families with autism.

As autistic people grow older, they still require treatment to live full lives, Pangle said, adding that her own 11-year-old son, who is autistic, recently aged out of mandated coverage. “People with autism always have room to grow.”

Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) treatments can help people with autism learn to speak, interact with others socially and even hold full-time jobs, Pangle said. Under the new law, these treatments will be more widely available to the autism community, which is aging as more diagnosed individuals graduate from high school.

— Contact Onofrio Castiglia at ocastiglia@winchesterstar.com

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