By Kathleen Sebelius
October 5, 2009
Washington, DC — Last Wednesday, President Obama visited the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to announce the single biggest investment in biomedical research in American history. Among the $5 billion in grants he announced are new explorations of longtime research targets from cancer to heart disease. But the grants also include the largest-ever investment in an Obama administration priority that has so far gone mostly unnoticed: autism research.
President Obama has made autism a focus from the first days of his presidency. Less than a week after he was sworn in, my department’s Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee released its first-ever strategic plan for government autism research. And President Obama has backed this plan by adding $1 billion to his budget for autism over the next eight years. Altogether, the federal government will provide nearly twice as much funding for autism research in the upcoming fiscal year as we had just three years ago.
We needed a new focus and new resources because autism has emerged as an urgent public health challenge. As recently as the 1990s, scientists thought autism was a rare disorder that affected 1 in every 2000 kids. Earlier this decade, we revised that estimate to say that 1 in every 150 kids was somewhere on the autism spectrum. Our most recent data suggest that autism may be even more common than that. Almost every American I talk to about this issue knows at least one family that is affected by autism.
Autism has created new challenges for families, schools, and health care providers. When parents discover that their child has autism today, they’re left with a lot of questions, but few answers. What causes autism? How can it be prevented? Which treatments can help? Where can I get needed services? These questions aren’t new. And the government has tried to address them in the past, most notably with the Combating Autism Act, which passed in 2006. But there has never been a comprehensive, well-funded effort across government to overcome autism – until now.
As Secretary of Health and Human Services, I oversee many of the agencies that are participating in this effort. At the NIH, new research funds are being used to address every aspect of autism from testing innovative treatments to exploring the unique needs of the growing number of adults with autism to searching for the genes underlying the disorder.
At the Health Resources and Services Administration, they’re helping train health professionals to recognize autism early when we know treatments can be more effective. They’ve also created two national autism research networks that will allow researchers to gather data from different sites in order to identify the most promising treatments for autism. These networks will also create channels for these best practices to flow back to parents and providers around the country, so that Americans can have the latest evidence on which treatments work and which don’t.
The Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services is working with states to provide targeted case management that helps kids with autism get the support they need at home and at school. And for the first time ever, they’re supporting medical home models that can help children with autism get the kind of coordinated, family-centered care that helps them thrive.
President Obama is also taking steps to make sure health insurance reform will address the needs of families with autism. Under the plan he has proposed, private insurance companies would no longer be able to deny you coverage just because you or someone in your family has a condition like autism. And in order to participate in new health insurance exchanges, insurance companies will have to agree to offer mental health services that help families with autism on par with other benefits.
Like public health challenges such as polio in the 1950s and HIV/AIDS in the 1980s, we must address the rising prevalence and complex needs of people with autism. We still have more questions than answers. But with additional funding and a new coordinated national strategy, we are working harder and more closely together to find those answers than ever before.
Kathleen Sebelius is the Secretary of Health and Human Services in President Barack Obama's Cabinet. She was the Democratic governor of the state of Kansas from 2003 to 2009.