Medicaid is a federal program meant to work as a critical safety net for people who need health care but can't afford to pay for it. If your family meets financial benchmarks, you could qualify right away. If you don't, you may need to prove that one family member has a disability that qualifies them for Medicaid. 

Autism is considered a disability via Medicaid rules. If you're accepted into the program, you can get help for the treatments you need. Despite what you may have heard or read, Medicaid is considered a good form of insurance. In fact, people with Medicaid get coverage equal to or better than what's available in private programs. 

But Medicaid does come with drawbacks you should know about as you determine if it's the right choice for your family in 2020.

How Does Medicaid Work? 

Think of Medicaid as a project shared by federal and state governments. They both add money to keep the work going, and they both have a say in how the money is spent. 

The Kaiser Family Foundation explains that Medicaid is based on two guarantees .

  • Coverage: People who meet requirements will get help. You can't qualify and get a denial based on a technicality.
  • Funding: States pay for qualified services for people who are eligible for Medicaid. The dollars spent by the states get matched by the federal government. Some states get a 50% match; others get a little more or a little less.

States have quite a bit of Medicaid leeway. They can determine what sorts of things are covered and set limits on other types of care. But experts say some of their decisions are locked if these states want to secure federal funding. For example, states must cover mandatory populations , including:

  • Children up to age 18 from low-income families.
  • Pregnant women from low-income families.
  • Parents or caretakers in low-income families.
  • Seniors and people with disabilities who get cash assistance through the Supplemental Security Income program.

States determine how to distribute health care. Most use managed care plans, and those look very similar to those used by people with private health insurance. But other states use health homes or accountable care organizations. 

In general, you must use providers that accept Medicaid payments. Not all doctors, hospitals, and health clinics accept that form of insurance. If you step outside of the network Medicaid uses in your state, you could be stuck with some or all of the bill. 

Medicaid plans cover several different forms of autism treatment, as mandated by the Department of Health and Human Services . Those treatment types include:

  • Speech, physical, and occupational therapy.
  • Physician services.
  • Private-duty nursing.
  • Personal care services.
  • Home health.
  • Medical equipment.
  • Rehabilitation services.
  • Vision care.
  • Dental care.

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is the gold standard of treatment for people with autism, and parents might enroll in Medicaid to pay for that care. Medicaid doesn't explicitly mandate ABA coverage. In fact, the Department of Health and Human Services says ABA is just one type of autism treatment , and the organization doesn't endorse one form of care over another.

In some states, ABA is routinely covered. But due to this gray area, some states require families to use other therapies instead. Confirm that a particular type of therapy is covered by Medicaid before you commit. This will prevent financial surprises down the road.

How to Apply for Medicaid in 2020

Choose one of two ways to apply for Medicaid in your state. No matter which method you pick, prepare to gather information about your income, health history, and family ties. 

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services says you can sign up for Medicaid via :

  • The Health Insurance Marketplace. This is the website families use to buy insurance that comes with subsidies from the federal government. The application is online, and you must answer several questions. If you qualify, you'll find out right away.
  • Your state Medicaid agency. If you're uncomfortable using computers to fill out important forms, contact the Medicaid agency within your state. Meet with an expert and talk about your eligibility in person.

Some families don’t quite meet eligibility requirements for Medicaid, but they do need financial assistance. If you're in this category and you use the Health Insurance Marketplace, you'll find that out when you apply, and you'll see options that help you choose the health insurance plan that's right for you.

But be careful. If you qualify for Medicaid, you can't decline the offer and ask for subsidized health insurance. The program doesn't work that way , experts say.

How Do States Use Medicaid for Autism Care?

Since states dictate how money is spent within their borders, coverage varies widely depending on where you live. That's especially true if you're searching for information about Medicaid autism coverage. 

Consider ABA therapy. Here's a rundown of how a few states deal with requests to cover that form of autism treatment:

  • Texas: In 2019, the governor signed a budget bill that mandated Medicaid coverage for necessary autism care, including ABA therapy. 
  • North Carolina: The Medicaid authority in this state recognizes that ABA might be right for some people, but the organization also says some people could benefit from another form of treatment. Coverage isn't guaranteed .

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services keeps a comprehensive list of all state offices. Contact the department in your state for more information on how ABA is handled where you live.

Medicaid Limitations 

Enroll in Medicaid, and most of your health care costs are covered. You won't have a monthly premium to pay, and if you work within the network, you may not have copayments to make either. But Medicaid does have a few limitations all families should be aware of. 

Common limitations include:

  • Denials. Your state may cover only one type of autism treatment , or the plan won't cover therapies that aren't delivered by a specific type of trained professional. Confirm the professional you choose fits the requirements before enlisting in therapy.
  • Lack of approved professionals. Doctors, therapists, and other treatment providers must accept Medicaid payments. Sometimes, families can't find anyone to care for their children with autism due to the low reimbursement rates Medicaid offers.
  • Political battles. Some legislators aim to keep the federal budget in check, and they hope to do that by cutting Medicaid entitlements . Federal Medicaid fund caps could strip families of the care they need, even if they qualify for subsidized treatment through Medicaid.
  • Age caps. Most of the autism treatments we've discussed apply to children. Once people celebrate their 21st birthday, most benefits stop. There aren't comparable programs for adults , advocates say, even when those adults still qualify for Medicaid.

These limitations shouldn't dissuade you from Medicaid autism coverage. If you qualify, the program offers real help for your family. But it's good to know as much as you can about the program before you sign up.

Medicaid Autism Benefits Are Real

It's worth repeating: Coverage through Medicaid is worthwhile for the families that qualify. 

Your coverage could help your family:

  • Get good health care. Researchers say the coverage you get through Medicaid is as good as (or better) than the benefits you'd get through a private health insurance company.
  • Save money. Researchers also say that people with Medicaid coverage have a lower risk of high out-of-pocket expenses, when compared to people with private insurance coverage.

Given all of these benefits, it makes sense for families to at least try to access Medicaid autism coverage in 2020. It could be just what you need to get your family back on track.

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