Mental Health Coverage: From a Parent’s Perspective

Case studies and personal testimonies have an incredible impact on policy decision-making. This strategy is crucial for many families who are not able to self-advocate or are underrepresented in the process because they are marginalized by poverty, geography, language barriers or by caring for a child with a disability.  At Michigan’s Children we seek these voices and want to bring them forward.

Prior to my MSW Internship at Michigan’s Children, I spent a great deal of time advocating for families in the special education system.  By far the most challenging families were those from foreign, non-English speaking countries, low-income families of color, and migrant families.  Advocating for children with disabilities with Individual Education Plans (IEPs) was hard enough, but adding poverty, language and cultural barriers to the equation, made the work even more challenging.  These families needed wrap-around support, education and coaching, but instead often watched as their child was shuffled from school to school or classroom to classroom, because no one could accommodate their child in their current placement or home school. As a result, many students face multiple challenges including differential school discipline, connections to the juvenile justice system, and being at-risk of school dropout.

Three bills are before the Senate Committee on Health Policy that would mandate health insurance coverage of autism spectrum disorders (ASD).  SB 414 and SB 415 provide the comprehensive language specifying the age parameters and treatment modalities, among other aspects.  SB 918 is a new bill, tied to the two others, which would create a fund to reimburse insurers for these expenses, as an incentive.

There is critical need for this coverage, which has been legislated in 29 other states to date.  At issue however, is whether this legislation should be a stand-alone policy that affects the estimated 15,000 Michigan families currently impacted by autism spectrum disorders (ASD) or if it should be an all-inclusive policy that would provide insurance coverage for all families with children with mental health issues.  43 out of 50 states currently have mental health parity (excluding  Michigan) and most of the legislation passed on autism coverage occurred after mental health parity was passed into law (25 out of 29).  ASD is commonly associated with other disorders (otherwise known as co-morbidity), including ADHD, Depression, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and/or Seizure Disorders, often developing as children mature and reach the age of puberty. It seems like we are creating a disparity  even within the ASD population. These autism bills will cover children up to age 18, but because we do not have mental health parity, older individuals with ASD will not be covered for either their primary disability, or any co-morbid conditions.

As a parent of a son with ASD, managing the care of a loved one with a disorder or disability is a long and exhausting road that never ends.    Finding physicians or mental health professionals with experience in working with children with disabilities can be a challenge all by itself.  With mental health parity, it would seem very likely that the pool of experienced practitioners would increase in Michigan. This, in and of itself, would be a welcome by-product of mental health parity law and even the current autism bills under discussion.

-Ann Telfer

Ann is an MSW student from the University of Michigan School of Social Work completing her field placement with Michigan’s Children.