With the hope that early diagnosis and treatment of autism will lead to better lives for thousands of children and families, Gov. Charlie Crist signed legislation Tuesday that could force many large insurance plans to cover the increasingly diagnosed condition.
Former Miami Dolphins star and autism activist Dan Marino watched as Crist signed a bill that advocates have pushed for more than a decade - and said he hopes that it will lead other families without an NFL star's income to get some of the treatment that his son benefited from.
Marino's son Michael is now 20.
"He's in college, doing very well, and he's a direct result of early intervention," Marino said. "He's a direct result of occupational therapies, speech therapies, the things that you need to do at an early age."
He added: "It's given me chills actually, just thinking about the opportunity this is going to give so many children in Florida and so many families that have to deal with autism."
The new law calls for health insurance companies to negotiate agreements with the state on how they will cover diagnosis and treatment of autism-related disorders. If companies don't enter into such agreements, the state will require certain coverages by July of next year.
The coverage is capped at $36,000 a year, or $200,000 over a lifetime.
That's meant to help families like Ron Watson's. His 4-year-old son Dylan has autism.
For the next year until the coverage starts, his family will pay for the child's care out of pocket. But eventually, the program will be a huge help for Watson, who works as a lobbyist in Tallahassee for the Florida Dental Association.
"It will probably prevent me from having to sell my home or a car or max out my credit cards," Watson said. "Fortunately, we have stuck aside enough money where I think we should be good for a year. But I can't imagine all these families that for five, six, seven years have been spending $20,000, $30,000, $40,000 a year on medical services."
"This is a very happy day for an awful lot of people," said Crist.
But the measure only applies to large group insurance plans. That means families whose insurance is provided through a small employer, or who have an individual plan, may not benefit.
Sharon Wilpon still won't be able to afford the $600-a-week behavioral therapy for her 5-year-old son Benjamin because she has an individual insurance policy.
"It's a great first step and I'm glad it's going to help some," said Wilpon, of Cooper City, who attended an event with Crist at a Davie preschool. "The majority of people, it's not going to help. We still have a lot of work to do."
The bill's sponsor, Sen. Steve Geller, D-Cooper City, said the bill will only help about half of the people with insurance who need the coverage - and won't help anyone who doesn't have insurance at all. He's leaving the Legislature because of term limits, but hopes lawmakers will expand the initiative.
The measure also has a provision that allows insurers to negotiate deals with the state on how they might increase coverage for other developmental disabilities, but the provision doesn't carry any penalties for those that don't.
The bill is unusual in that the Republican-dominated Legislature has been largely unwilling in recent years to create new requirements on what insurance companies must cover. Insurers have argued, successfully, against such mandates by pointing to them as one of the main drivers of health costs.
Ironically, another bill Crist will sign this week is aimed at making cheap health insurance available to more people - precisely by removing such mandates. That bill, which Crist intends to sign Wednesday, will make cheap plans that aren't required to cover many of the current 50 or so mandates, such as coverage for mammograms, or certain cancer treatments.
Crist has battled with property insurance companies extensively in his year and a half in office. He said insurance companies should be covering autism because "it's the right thing."
"Many companies in our country do very, very well, and there's a time to give back," Crist said. "And this would be that time."