Self-funded plans frequently deal with issues at the intersection of physical health, behavioral health, medical science, and government regulation. One emerging issue that relates to each of these areas is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) treatment for autism spectrum disorders (ASD).
ABA is one of the fastest growing state benefit mandates. Today, 46 states mandate some form of autism coverage with varying degrees of benefit coverage and limits. ABA is a prime example of the type of coverage required by state mandates.
The prevalence of ASD has risen precipitously. In the early 1980s, population prevalence was estimated at 0.05% (five of 10,000 children). The most recent studies estimate prevalence to be 1.5% (one in 68 children). Traditionally, commercial insurers excluded or minimally covered treatment for ASD. However, more recent federal mental health parity laws and essential health benefit requirements (EHBs) of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) have served to increase access to ASD treatments.
ABA is a behavioral strategy to improve socially significant behaviors to a meaningful degree. Targeted behaviors include adaptive living skills such as gross/fine motor skills, social skills, communication, reading, eating, and dressing. The ABA treatment regimen typically involves highly structured, intensive interventions for up to 30 or 40 hours per week. The course of treatment can last many years, from diagnosis at early ages (e.g., ages 3 to 4) through adolescence (and sometimes beyond).
While self-funded employer-sponsored plans are not required to comply with state mandates under federal law (ERISA), they are not immune from the trend toward greater ABA coverage driven by state mandates for insured plans.
Challenges for self-insured plan sponsors include:
- Medical necessity. Medical carriers will often advise that ABA is not medically necessary for its self-insured customers but will cover it for its insured business to meet state mandate requirements. This makes it difficult for plan sponsors to explain to members why it is not covered under their plan.
- Cost. Assuming conservatively the average age of diagnosis is 4 years and average age of completion is 15 years, adding this benefit can be a long-term expense to the plan. Cost estimates range between $25,000 and $50,000 per case per year.
- Utilization management. If plan sponsors decide to cover ABA, then it is important to make sure members access school-/community-based services, which play a significant and progressive role in offsetting plan costs
- Network management and provider credentialing. As demand for ABA services grows, plan sponsors may want to review credentialing and network utilization to assure ongoing access to qualified providers for these services.
- Compliance. Plan sponsors must not run afoul of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (MHPAEA), which prohibits plans from restricting mental health benefits more so than physical health benefits
- Related benefits. Even if a plan specifically excludes coverage for ASD treatment and diagnosis, members with autism are most likely already receiving related functional health benefits such as physical therapy and speech therapy (habilitative and rehabilitative). It is important to understand the inter-connectedness of benefit administration and the underlying equities.
The increasing prevalence of ASD, the growth in state ASD benefit mandates, and the widespread treatment of ASD through ABA can affect self-funded plan sponsors, requiring them to think comprehensively about balancing member needs and access with care cost and care management.
Adam Miller is a Milliman healthcare consultant specializing in Taft Hartley multi-employer plans