Council Proposes ABA Coverage

Advocates persuade Council on autism treatment benefits

Jacquie Benestante (left) and Lisa Whitted (right)
Jacquie Benestante (left) and Lisa Whitted (right) (Courtesy of City of Austin)

Lisa Whitted knew that she'd cleared a big hurdle. Last Thursday, May 14, City Coun­cil approved a resolution, sponsored by CM Delia Garza, to direct City Manager Marc Ott to include applied behavioral analysis health care coverage for autistic children into the city's employee group benefits package when drafting next year's fiscal budget.

ABA is a systematic intervention strategy designed to re-direct the learning habits of the children. For Whitted, the wife of an APD officer and mother of two autistic children, and her fellow parent advocates, Council's action follows two years of wrestling with the city's human resources department and trying to educate Council on the virtues of the treatment. It concludes two months of testimony to the Health & Human Services Committee and efforts to convince Council that costs of ABA therapy would differ from estimates provided to the city by local consulting firm Towers Watson, that calculated costs at 40 hours per week. According to Autism Speaks, a national advocacy group that sponsors autism research, benefit use is often just a fraction of TW's estimated time and cost.

The issue before Council was never whether or not ABA has a positive effect on the children currently affected by autism, but rather how much strain the cost of coverage would place upon the city. As written now – with enough vagueness to allow Ott to construct the benefit however his office best sees fit – opposition would only imply an issue with the idea of ABA coverage in general. In that context, every Council member supported the resolution save CM Don Zimmer­man, who abstained after offering an un-seconded amendment, suggested by the Austin Firefighters Association, that proposed the cost of the treatment be paid for by the employees who need it. (AFA president Bob Nicks clarified to the Chronicle that his proposal was written in haste, that the AFA supports implementing the new benefit, and that he meant to write "employee group," a distinction that places the cost burden on several thousand employees, as opposed to 20 or 30.) The only amendment that did pass, moved by Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, directs Ott's office to also consider any like-minded options that might come up through its research.

Advocates for the benefit now turn their attention toward late summer, when Council begins to break down the city manager's proposed budget. As for Whitted, she says her work is done. "It's out of my realm," she said. "If that budget comes back to Council and [ABA treatment] isn't on there, we'll have to depend on our four co-sponsors to really go to bat for us and make sure it makes its way back onto the budget. ... There's going to be a lot of discussion in September, but we couldn't have that if we didn't succeed [last Thursday]."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

health care coverage, City Council 2015, applied behavior analysis, autism, health insurance

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