Senate passes expanded autism coverage over Obamacare objection

Berkeley County lawmaker, Sen. Larry Grooms, invoked objections to the federal Affordable Care Act in raising concerns about a measure expanding coverage for autism treamtents on Thursday.

COLUMBIA — Hundreds of autistic children in South Carolina would qualify for treatment through their health insurance under a bill that passed the Senate on Thursday, but one lawmaker worries that the state may end up footing the bill while tying itself to the Affordable Care Act.

The measure would ensure that those who have health insurance through a small business and those who buy individual health insurance policies can get autism treatment under a 2007 law known as Ryan’s Law.

That law requires the State Employee Health Plan and other types of insurance to cover autism treatment.

The bill was opposed by Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, who said he supports expanded coverage for autism treatment, but wants to ensure that South Carolina isn’t saddled with extra costs under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

The federal health care law would make South Carolina responsible for the cost of expanded autism coverage because Ryan’s Law is a state-level mandate, not a federal requirement. However, in other states where similar laws have been passed, insurance companies have paid the extra costs.

Still, the measure could cost South Carolina between $500,000 and about $2 million to cover autism services for this new group of children.

Autism spectrum disorder is defined by the Mayo Clinic as a neurodevelopmental disorder that impairs a child’s ability to communicate and interact with others. It affects one in 68 children, according to the federal Centers for disease Control and Prevention.

Grooms said he was concerned that the autism bill might be seen as the state supporting the Affordable Care Act, which conservative South Carolina leaders have been loathe to embrace. They have refused to expand Medicaid under Obamacare and also declined to set up a state-based health insurance exchange.

The U.S. Supreme Court will decide this summer if customers who use HealthCare.gov to purchase insurance — including more than 100,000 people in South Carolina — qualify for federal subsidies that lower their premiums.

While the ruling will determine if coverage is affordable for thousands of South Carolinians, it will not topple the federal law. The Supreme Court already ruled in 2012 that Obamacare is constitutional.

“The state has to be free to legislate in the arena of insurance, as it always has, and cannot be chilled in its actions by a minor ACA impact,” said Lorri Unumb, an advocate for Autism Speaks.

The original South Carolina autism law was named for Unumb’s son, Ryan, 14.

She said the law made her son’s treatment possible and called it “life-changing.”

Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Columbia, said the autism law has little to do with the Affordable Care Act.

He said South Carolina will have much bigger problems if the Supreme Court strips subsidies from HealthCare.gov shoppers. Without those discounts, coverage will become instantly unaffordable for most people who have purchased Obamacare policies.

“You’ve got mass chaos,” he said. “This (autism law) will be the least of our concerns.”

Grooms said he’ll be seeking clarity on the issue as the bill heads to the House.

Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.