Insurance Companies Refuse Autism Coverage

Korlan Oldham of Leesburg, Va. receives one-on-on one behavioral therapy to treat his autism
Korlan Oldham of Leesburg, Va. receives one-on-on one behavioral therapy to treat his autism. The medical and therapy costs associated with autism can be astronomical, but insurance companies rarely cover them and only seven states have laws mandating that they do.

An estimated one in every 150 children in America has autism and the number of reported cases is growing.

The total cost of caring for an autistic child can reach a staggering $5 million.

Parents are increasingly demanding that insurance companies cover the newest treatment. CBS News correspondent Thalia Assuras visited one such family in Virginia.

At 7 years old, Tristan Oldham is the big brother in this rambunctious trio. A couple of years younger is Gareth - bubbly and playful until he was two.

That's when "he slowly stopped playing. He would sit in a corner and chew on his shirt and play with the shadows," said mother Cassandra Oldham.

Gareth was diagnosed with autism. Nine months later, as Cassandra and Bill Oldham struggled to cope with Gareth's condition, they suffered another blow. Their third child, Korlan, is also autistic.

"I can't even describe it in words really. Just pain. Pain. Gut-wrenching more pain," Cassandra Oldham said.

The emotional anguish was multiplied by financial stress.

Intensive, one-on-one behavioral and speech therapy called "applied behavior analysis therapy" or ABA helps the boys. But it costs up to $7,000 a month per child for the recommended 40 hours per week. The Oldhams struggled to pay even half the amount.

"Which child do you choose? We don't have enough money to pay for therapy for both of them," Cassandra Oldham said.

The Oldhams have insurance, but not for autism therapy because Virginia isn't one of the seven states that mandate coverage. Businesses say adding autism to the list is too expensive.

"Prosthetics, mental health, stress, hypertension: all of these things lead to a cumulative effect that runs the risk of putting the insurance out of reach for the average business person and the average employee working for that person," said Hugh Keogh of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce.

Cassandra Oldham and state Delegate Bob Marshall don't buy it. They are pushing legislation that would force insurers to cover ABA, and say the costs of a policy would be minimal - somewhere between $2 and $4 a month.

"There are real children whose lives are going to be destroyed because we are acting indifferent to them. That's not a moral response," Marshall said.

But in tough economic times, states like Virginia are trying to figure out how to do the most good with fewer resources.

"Ii have a lot of fear when I think about the future and where my kids will be at," Cassandra Oldham said.

They've thought about moving to a state where their boys can get all the help they need.