California broadens autism therapy coverage for children on Medi-Cal

California children enrolled in Medi-Cal will regain access to an expensive form of autism therapy

California children enrolled in public healthcare will regain access to an expensive form of autism therapy after the state Monday became the first in the country to comply with new federal guidelines.

The therapy, called applied behavior analysis, was at the center of controversy last year when state officials phased out the Healthy Families program, which covered the treatment, and shifted poor children into Medi-Cal, which did not.

Advocates said the new federal guidelines, issued in July, will help rectify this lapse in healthcare coverage for potentially thousands of children.

"It's really incredible these kids can finally get the treatment," said Kristin Jacobson, president of Autism Deserves Equal Coverage, an advocacy group based in San Mateo County. "It can be the difference from a child who can't communicate at all to being able to say, 'I'm hungry,' or 'I'm tired.'"

The therapy involves working closely with children to improve their behavior and learn new tasks. It can cost tens of thousands of dollars each year.

While private insurance companies must cover the therapy under California law, it has been left out of Medi-Cal, the state's version of Medicaid, until now.

"This important milestone will ensure that all children in California, regardless of their insurance or economic status, will have access to life-changing treatments for autism spectrum disorders," said Senate President Darrell Steinberg in a statement.

Norman Williams, a spokesman for the California Department of Health Care Services, said officials have not finalized an estimate for how much the therapy will cost the state.

"We are very pleased to provide this benefit," he said. "This is something that is going to make a lot of difference for a lot of families in California."

chris.megerian@latimes.com

Twitter: @chrismegerian

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