Mississippi law could expand services for people with autism
EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS, Associated Press
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Brian and Laura Beth Johnston of Madison learned in December that their 4-year-old son, Fraiser, has autism. But because their private insurance doesn't pay for the therapy he needs, Fraiser has gone without services that could help him with language development and other skills, his mother said.
The diagnosis alone cost the couple $1,200.
"When we started researching it, the therapy he was going to need was going to be anywhere from $800 to $1,500 a month," Laura Beth Johnston said Wednesday at the Capitol.
"I'm a nurse and he's a youth minister, and we couldn't afford that for our child," she said. "And it was heartbreaking to think that we work so hard taking care of other people and our children wouldn't be able to be taken care of the way they needed to be."
A new Mississippi law is designed to help people like the Johnstons as they try to help children with autism spectrum disorder, Gov. Phil Bryant said during a news conference Wednesday.
Bryant recently signed House Bill 885, which says the state will issue licenses for applied behavior analysts — professionals who can help autistic children with a range of services.
The bill also says insurance policies in Mississippi must cover screening, diagnosis and treatment for autism spectrum disorder, starting next January. Medicaid covers autism therapy, but many private insurance plans don't currently cover the services, which can cost hundreds of dollars a month.
"Imagine yourself being a parent challenged with a special-needs child, knowing that help is just a short distance away and that you could not afford it or it would put such a burden on your family. Your insurance company says, 'That is not something that we cover,'" Bryant said.
The governor and University of Southern Mississippi President Rodney Bennett announced that USM is starting a two-year master's degree program this fall for people who want to become applied behavior analysts. Students will learn to help autistic children with social skills, language and cognitive development, adaptive behavior and academic performance.
Joe Olmi, chairman of the school psychology program at the USM, said the new law means that "many families across Mississippi will now have available to them techniques and procedures that have the potential to bring about meaningful and positive changes that could forever affect the quality of life."