UPMC will open state's first regional autism center

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HARRISBURG -- Pennsylvanians living with autism face four- to eight-month waiting lists to be diagnosed and assessed by doctors.

But a slice of nearly $23 million in state and federal funds dedicated this year to autism health care will cut that wait to three weeks, according to Dr. Nancy J. Minshew, a pediatric neurologist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, who has been involved with autism research for more than 23 years.

Dr. Minshew said she plans to use some of that funding to set up the state's first regional autism center at UPMC to make doctors more readily available to treat those with autism and provide better care.

Doctors at the center would diagnose and treat some of the estimated 75,000 Pennsylvanians suffering from autism, and train clinicians to deal with autistic workers and students.

"Every dollar is precious, and the need is great in autism. It's been such a neglected area for so long," Dr. Minshew said.

Renewed news media focus on the disorder and a newly powerful ally, state House Speaker Dennis O'Brien, R-Philadelphia, ensured that the 2007 budget secured almost five times as much combined state and federal funding for autism than last year.

Mr. O'Brien, who has an adult nephew with the disorder, has worked for years to secure funds for autism. Autism earned a place on the legislative agenda this year as part of the deal that made him speaker in January.

The $9.9 million in state and $13 million in federal funds will go to various health care, research and training initiatives across the state, Dr. Minshew said.

And in the fall, the state Senate is poised to consider legislation mandating insurers to cover medical services for autistic children.

"This additional focus on the problem of autism is going to pay big dividends in terms of real-world treatments for autism, earlier intervention [and] much better outcomes for families," said Bill Patton, Mr. O'Brien's spokesman.

The focus next year will be on early diagnosis, expanding health care services and helping adults with autism integrate into the workplace, said Nina Wall-Cote, director of the state Bureau of Autism Services, which will allocate the new funds.

Autistic adults receive no special housing, job or education assistance that would enable them to enter the work force. But the new funding should help change that in Pennsylvania, said Cindy Waeltermann, director of Pittsburgh's Autism Link.

"We're going to be going from nothing to having something," Ms. Waeltermann said. "We'll get these people off the public dole."

Another key component of Mr. O'Brien's autism agenda will have to wait for action in the Senate, which is recessed until Sept. 17. Then, it will consider legislation the House unanimously passed last week that would require health insurers to cover autistic children for up to $36,000 a year for autism treatment.

A Senate committee has referred the measure to the Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council to assess the financial effects of the bill.

Opponents said they expect the council to confirm their view that the costs of the measure would fall largely on the backs of small businesses. Federal law exempts certain insurance plans, usually those purchased by large companies, from following state mandates.

Public medical assistance programs currently cover some autism-related health care costs. The state Department of Public Welfare would continue to pick up the tab for costs exceeding the $36,000 cap, and for those patients with insurance plans exempted from state mandates.

Dr. Minshew said the welfare department's low reimbursement rates for autism treatment dissuade doctors from taking new patients. Private insurers would offer better financial incentives for doctors to accept autism patients, she said.

Brian Kelly, director of government affairs at the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, said businesses mandated to provide the coverage would see premiums rise 4 percent or more. The public assistance health care that families with autistic children now receive provides sufficient coverage without hurting business owners, he said.

"The mandate through this House bill is inequitable, because it only applies to those small business owners that can't afford to self-insure," Mr. Kelly said.

Ms. Waeltermann, who has two autistic sons, called those cost estimates "wildly inflated" and said private insurance would provide far better and more cost-effective care than that available under Medicaid.

"We have a lot of families across the state who have to pay for [health insurance] premiums which don't cover anything for their autistic children. It's an inequitable system," she said. "Why should the taxpayers have to pay the burden?"

Correction/Clarification: (Published July 26, 2007) This story as originally published July 24, 2007 wrongly suggested that Pittsburgh currently lacks clinics to treat autism. UPMC will use new state and federal funds "to begin the first center in the region that directly links high-level academic researchers and clinical treatment," said Dr. Nancy Minshew, an autism researcher at the University of Pittsburgh. The establishment of academically based regional centers was a major goal of the Pennsylvania Autism Task Force.

Sarina Rosenberg is an intern with the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents' Association.


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