Drink and Drive for Autism? Colorado Bill Would Help Autistic Kids

Proposal would tack surcharge on fines for drunken driving

By John J. Sanko, Rocky Mountain News

Motorists caught driving drunk in Colorado could help fund programs for hundreds of autistic children.

Sen. Ken Gordon, D-Denver, said Monday he intends to introduce
legislation to impose a $20 surcharge on fines levied against drivers
convicted of driving while drunk or impaired.

That’s on top of an existing $20 surcharge for the Brain Injury
Trust Fund.

Gordon estimates that a new surcharge would raise about $1.5 million
in the first year. With matching federal Medicaid money, it could fund
early treatment for autistic children, he said.

Autism is a neurological disorder that occurs in as many as six of
every 1,000 children, although it’s four times more prevalent in boys than
girls, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The University of Colorado Health Sciences Center and its JFK Center
for Developmental Disabilities estimate there are 700 children born every
year in Colorado who will be diagnosed with autism by two.

Autistic children often have difficulty in verbal communication,
social interaction and play activities, according to the Autism Society of
America.

Early treatment can save millions by slashing the cost of special
education for the children in schools and helping many lead productive
adult lives, Gordon said.

But because of the cost, which ranges between $20,000 and $60,000 a
year per child, many receive little or no treatment.

“It just makes sense,” said Betty Lehman, executive director of the
Autism Society of Colorado. “This kind of early treatment cuts lifetime
costs of care by over two-thirds. And for every $1 in early intervention,
it saves $6 in special education costs.

“Some legislators scream, ‘Oh, no, our budget is being consumed by
Medicaid,’ but when you look at these figures, it’s really one of the best
ways to spend our money.”

Recent economic cutbacks have been tough on families with autistic
children. The Rocky Mountain Autism Center in Denver was forced to close
in August.

A bill in the 2000 session that would have started a small pilot
Medicaid program for 25 autistic children was vetoed by Gov. Bill Owens
because of its potential cost.

Gordon, Lehman and others have been working to win the
administration’s support for the legislation, which will be introduced
when the 2004 session starts next month.

“The governor certainly will be interested in seeing what this
proposal is,” said Owens’ spokesman, Dan Hopkins.

Despite the governor’s veto of the bill in 2000, Hopkins noted that
Owens has supported increased funding for all developmentally disabled,
including those with autism.

Colorado expects to spend about $283 million in the current fiscal
year to serve more than 7,000 children with developmental disabilities,
including some with autism.

“The governor has clearly been concerned about developmentally
disabled and has steadily increased funding to help them,” Hopkins said.
“We’ll look closely at what they’re proposing.”

Lehman said an estimated 520 children would be eligible for the
proposed Medicaid waiver program in any given year. Some 130 are eligible
for Medicaid because of poverty and disability.

The money raised under the new program would help an estimated 120
to 150 youngsters a year get therapy, with a $25,000 annual cap. The age
limit would be 8.

Children would be eligible for benefits for three years, with a
possible one-year extension.

“The general public has not realized that autism is treatable,” said
Lehman, who has a 15-year-old with autism.

“Can you imagine the impact on a family to know their child has a
condition that’s treatable and they can’t afford it? “This program is not
like signing up for life. The child gets the benefit of intensive
intervention at an early age and then it’s over. Then a child is able to
learn in school. And then school can be so much more effective.”

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