SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Learning that your child is autistic can be heart-wrenching for some parents, particularly right after the initial diagnosis.
But once the shock wears off, a Layton, Utah, woman found the challenge of finding the proper care to help your child develop in the best way possible can be a major undertaking — both emotionally and financially — especially when your employer-sponsored health insurance doesn’t cover it.
For MaShel West, the emotional journey from despair to hope would begin about 5 1/2 years ago when she noticed her youngest child, Lucas, began displaying behavior that was a bit different than her two older kids when they were the same age in their development.
“I kind of was sensing maybe something was up. (Contacted our) pediatrician and talked to her about it. She said, ‘He’s pretty lovable. He’s pretty socially connected, which is not super typical for autism,’” West explained. “So all indications at first were no, he was maybe delayed in speech, but he didn’t have autism.”
Not long after, however, West said her son’s behavior became more pronounced.
“It was becoming pretty evident. He wouldn’t look at you in the eye. It was really hard to get his attention,” she said. “We ended up getting him diagnosed when he was probably almost 3, but we started early intervention and a lot of different therapies.”
She noted that the Davis School District assesses special needs students and will start them out with therapy at home, including speech therapy and various types of classes to help them in their individual development. Despite the efforts of the district, West soon realized what was being provided would not be enough to help her son reach his full potential.
She began doing research and looking for resources. After conferring with another mom who had a child on the autism spectrum, she was able to get Lucas in the right classes and was on her way to getting the help he truly needed. She soon learned of applied behavioral analysis or ABA therapy, “a very specific customized therapy for children that are on the autism spectrum,” she explained.
“Therapists come into your home. That’s an environment your child is used to, they learn better there and they customize speech, occupational therapy – anything they need for your child and what his needs are,” West said. “I wanted to get him enrolled in (ABA therapy) and was checking with benefits … and found out we don’t cover ABA therapy.”
The out-of-pocket expense would be over $3,000 a month – not feasible for the average family, she said. “The day that I found that out, I was pretty bummed about it and I was emotional.”
Among the things running through her mind was that she would have to consider leaving a job and workplace that she loved to take a new job that would allow her family to afford the therapy. As fate would have it, what was turning out to be an emotionally taxing time in her life would soon offer a glimmer of hope.
In tears, she and a co-worker were pulling out of the parking lot at work when they spotted two CHG Healthcare executives – CEO Scott Beck and Kevin Rickleffs, senior vice president of talent management – walking out of the building on their way to a meeting.
“I’ve got to go say something and (my friend) in the car says, ‘What are you doing?’ I’m like, I’m pulling over. She’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, don’t do it.’ And I’m like, I’m doing it, I’m doing it,” West said.
After “gently” approaching Beck and Rickleffs, West said, she was able to get them to hear about her circumstance.
“Prior to that, we had other people that had kids on the (autism) spectrum also, but you just never heard about it,” Rickleffs said. “So it kind of brought it to the forefront, at least in my mind. It just allowed us to begin exploring what should we do as an organization.”
Knowing that West wasn’t the only parent in the company of approximately 2,500 employees in need of this therapy, he said leadership felt strongly they needed to provide support for their workers.
“Ultimately, we ended up getting to where we got to, which is we’re going to cover it all,” Rickleffs said. “You can’t cover part of it, it’s kind of all or nothing. So at some point we decided we’ll just go all in and we’d cover everything.”
He said being able to provide the benefit to employees like West not only gives the much-needed therapy for kids with autism, it also builds loyalty and increases retention of valuable employees.
“She’s engaged and she’s appreciative and she works really hard,” he said. “She puts in the extra effort when she has to and that’s all really important to us. So it keeps retention very high. It creates a great experience and she’s our biggest fan now.”
Another CHG employee who is grateful for the additional benefit coverage is sales manager Braden Blackham. At the time, the 30-year-old and his wife were the new parents of a young daughter, who they noticed had some developmental differences.
“She wasn’t engaging with us as much as we thought she should have,” he said. “We finally saw two doctors and ended up getting to a diagnosis.”
“It’s hard to hear that when it’s your kid. It was hard for me to hear and for my wife, too. Just because it’s not what you expect,” he added “I didn’t know enough about it to where I could feel confident that things were going to be OK.”
Back at work, Blackham had remembered West’s story and sought her out to get some perspective on how to deal with this new diagnosis. He said conferring with her gave him an entirely new outlook on his family’s future.
“(It was a) total game-changer, gave me the confidence that things were going to be OK and gave me the confidence to get some of those plans in place,” he said. “Just knowing someone who’s gone through what you are helped.”
The company now has a network of parents of children with autism who offer support to each other, which he said gives all of them hope for a brighter future knowing they have access to the care their kids need to develop in the years ahead.
“I came from real estate where I had zero benefits, so I know what it’s like to have zero benefits and have emergencies like this happen and not be covered,” Blackham explained. “To have something like this and have it be so hard, and then find out that it is covered and that it’s not going to break our family. It’s huge, we’re so grateful.”
Written by JASEN LEE, Deseret News via Associated Press.
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