Friday, February 22, 2008

Autism aid is back on the table

New Jerseyans with autism would gain a government advocate, insurance coverage for promising treatments and help with living arrangements under a second wave of legislation detailed Wednesday.

In all, Assembly leaders say, they will propose six bills to support adults and children diagnosed with the neurological disorder. A similar effort in 2007 resulted in an eight-bill package -- signed by Governor Corzine -- that added millions of dollars for research, among other initiatives.

"This is Round 2, building on what we did last year," Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts, D-Camden, a sponsor of both bill packages, told The Record. "We really have to have a multidimensional approach to how we tackle it."

The bills will be considered Monday during a meeting of the Assembly Health Committee in Trenton.

Roberts did not have an estimate of what the latest legislation could cost. But he noted that some proposals -- particularly one to encourage home placement over institutional care -- would involve shifting expenditures among existing programs. And health plans, not taxpayers, would be required to reimburse the cost of expensive behavioral and other therapies that some insurers now decline to cover.

"I think [Roberts] introduced some really good pieces of legislation," said Leslie Long, director of public policy for the New Jersey chapter of the Center for Outreach and Services for the Autism Community. "It sends a message to families that the state is listening ... and willing to take a step forward. We need to take a leap, though."

New Jersey has the country's highest rate of autism, with one in 94 children affected, according to a study released last year by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The national rate is one in 150 children.

Autism can include impaired communication skills, social awkwardness and repetitive behavior. It has no known cause or cure.

The Legislature and Corzine have identified autism as a prime concern. In September, the governor approved the state's most comprehensive autism-related legislation ever, including establishing a council for adults, mandating childhood screening and dedicating millions of dollars to research.

Some of the legislation described Wednesday is based on existing services.

The Office of the Advocate for Persons with Autism, for instance, would be created within the Department of the Public Advocate, whose divisions work on issues important to consumers, voters, senior citizens, those with mental illness and others.

One bill would encourage people with autism to find their own living arrangements, with supervision. The idea is to decrease the number waiting for placement in state-run residences, and it resembles the state's "aging in place" initiatives dating to the mid-1990s.

The bill to require insurance coverage for therapies is similar to the mental-health parity requirement, enacted in 1999.

The three other pieces of legislation would create identification cards, establish a Web site as a clearinghouse for all autism-related services available in New Jersey and set up a student peer program in Grades 7-12, for typical students to interact with those who have autism.

Use of the ID cards would be voluntary. Some people with the diagnosis are sensitive to light and sound and they may not comply with a police officer's order to freeze or a firefighter's request to evacuate. In such a situation, an ID card could convey that the bearer may act atypically, but is not a danger.

Long, of the autism center, said the Web site and other forms of outreach are sorely needed.

Families and people with autism "need to be able to pick up the phone and find out where they get help," Long said.

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