The Autism Bill: Negative Outcomes From Good Intentions
There is an ironic tension between two health care bills currently pending in the Missouri Senate. One seeks to create an amendment that would increase health care freedom, while another would add to an already lengthy set of health insurance mandates. The latter bill, S.B. 618, would require state-regulated private health insurance companies — approximately 40 percent of the Missouri market — to cover expensive screenings and therapy for children with autism spectrum disorders. (The House version, H.B. 1311, recently passed.) Although well-intentioned, this mandate would necessarily raise the cost of premiums for Missourians, making it more difficult for individuals and small businesses to keep health insurance plans.
S.B. 618 would require insurance plans to cover up to $55,000 annually for autism diagnosis and treatment for children up to the age of 21. A mandate of any amount increases health insurance costs, and the bill’s substantial commitment would assuredly have a noticeable effect. Its proponents argue that it would increase the price of health care premiums by less than 1 percent, while insurers believe it could raise premiums up to 3 or 4 percent. Although the bill would exclude small businesses if it raised their premiums by more than 5 percent, any increase would necessarily price some marginal number of people and companies out of the insurance market, forcing them to cut coverage or reduce hiring.
Autism is a problem in Missouri, and it is not difficult to be swept up by the heart-wrenching stories of families with autistic children. But there are many disorders and diseases that afflict people — children and adults alike — and mandated coverage of all or even most of these problems would make insurance prohibitively expensive. These kinds of mandated coverage makes insurance more expensive especially for those with diseases that are not given state protection.
It’s important to note that some forms of autism aid already exist. Although not as comprehensive as an insurance mandate, there are publicly and privately funded resources for Missouri children with autism spectrum disorders, including Medicaid waivers for families who would not otherwise qualify for assistance, and a nonprofit private school for children with severe autism.
A large part of the argument in favor of the mandate lies in the unpredictability of health insurance when it is attached to employment — a problem only exacerbated by the current economic climate — and the difficulties involved in obtaining a plan that covers autism. Instead of government-imposed mandates about coverage, families should be free to choose an insurance plan that best fits their needs. Politicians cannot know the optimal equilibrium point between price, risk, and security for any type of insurance coverage, let alone for autism, because that equilibrium will differ for everyone.
The bill in question adds a much-needed amendment allowing Missourians to purchase out-of-state insurance that does not mandate autism coverage, although Missouri already has a mechanism that would help all families find affordable health insurance. Health savings accounts (HSAs) allow policyholders to become consumers, giving them the power to choose an appropriate coverage level. HSAs are portable, and therefore less dependent on job stability that may not always be available in an uncertain economic climate. Both employers and employees can contribute pretax funds to HSAs, which can then be used toward paying most basic health expenses. With an HSA and an accompanying high-deductible plan, consumers can budget their health care expenditures more effectively than bureaucratic cost-cutting is able to do.
State mandates raise health insurance costs across the board, and decrease people’s access to affordable coverage. In the long run, the most effective solution for families with autistic children — or any other disorder — is to open the insurance market to further competition, giving them a practical economic incentive to cater to such niche markets. Small businesses — at any point, but especially during a recession — are extremely cost-sensitive to changes in premiums like the one that would assuredly occur following a large mandate on autism treatment and diagnosis. Although this insurance mandate aims to help families with autistic children, it would simultaneously hurt another group of Missourians who would face significant cost increases, or even the potential loss of their own health insurance coverage.