Parents employed by the city of Tuscaloosa are urging the municipality to begin covering the cost of treating childhood autism in their health insurance plans.

The push is being led by Elizabeth Hinson, a city employee whose twin daughters Milly and Mattie were diagnosed with autism last year.

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Hinson said the twins were prescribed occupational and speech therapy alongside applied behavior therapy, or ABA.

"Based upon the University’s testing and diagnosis, these therapies were prescribed to give my girls the best shot at a traditional life," Hinson said in a statement. "The week Milly and Mattie began ABA therapy, we learned that the therapies they need are not covered by the city’s health insurance plan in any capacity."

Hinson notes that Alabama's 2017 Riley Ward Act requires employers to offer meaningful insurance coverage for the treatment of autism, but said the city of Tuscaloosa's HR department has said because the city offers self-insured policies, they are exempt from those requirements.

"I hope to shift the conversation from why the City of Tuscaloosa does not have to cover autism treatment, to why the City of Tuscaloosa should," Hinson said.

Hinson said studies suggest 1 in 44 children is diagnosed with autism and that ABA therapy can be a exponentially increase the likelihood that a child will reach a normal IQ.

Without health insurance coverage, though, parents are faced with impossible choices.

"Without coverage, the treatment of autism is financially devastating to the city’s employees – leaving only two options: that many affected children go without any treatment, or children receive only a mere fraction of prescribed treatment," she said. "The long-term results are that these children often end up in costly special education programs, and eventually become wards of the state."

Hinson and a large group of supporters attended a meeting of the Tuscaloosa City Council Tuesday to voice their concerns, and council president Kip Tyner told the crowd that the elected officials were only just learning of this concern for the first time.

"I want to make it very clear, this council was not aware of this," Tyner said.

Tyner said the council's administrative committee would revisit the issue soon, in a setting where more information can be gathered, like how many of the city's 1,300 employees have children with autism and what it would cost for the city to offer coverage of those conditions.

"Let's start that conversation there and then hopefully move forward to a happy ending," Tyner said. "This is, again, I was taken aback, I was surprised and did not know that at all."

You can watch the entire council meeting below -- the presentation and response on the issue of autism treatment coverage was the first matter the council heard Tuesday and begins around three minutes into the meeting.

For more updates on this issue as they develop, stay connected to the Tuscaloosa Thread.

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