Health insurers regulated by the state would have to cover treatment for autism under a bill that has passed the House and moved to the Senate.

Rep. Dwight Scharnhorst (R-Manchester) said during his opening remarks on the House floor that his bill would mandate the coverage of a wide range of disorders, called the autism spectrum disorder. HCS HB 1311&1341 passed the House Thursday on a 135-to-18 vote.

Scharnhorst took pains during his opening remarks to point out provisions to protect small businesses from any spikes in health care premiums due to the mandate. He noted that if a small business experiences a premium increase of 2 1/2 %, it could opt out of the mandate.

The House bill would require group insurance coverage up to $36,000 annually for autistic children up to 18. The mandate applies to insurance policies regulated by the state, which extends the coverage to about a third of the children diagnosed with an autistic disorder. A Senate version is more generous, providing $55,000 annually for behavioral treatment. Such treatment is costly, but has been shown to have a dramatic impact on autistic children. Provisions have been added to keep the mandate from having a dramatic impact on health insurance costs for small businesses.

A year ago, the Senate approved an autism mandate, but the measure never saw House floor debate. House leadership, worried that it would drastically drive up health insurance premiums, prevented the bill from moving to the floor for debate. Governor Nixon harshly criticized the House for its lack of action.

AUDIO: Rep. Scharnhorst opens House debate on autism bill [6:20 MP3]