In what advocates are hailing as a major step forward, the nation’s largest employer will require that all of its health insurance plans cover applied behavior analysis for kids with autism beginning next year.

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management said all health plans within the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program – which covers federal employees, retirees and their dependents – must include the behavior therapy starting in 2017.

“OPM has now determined that appropriate coverage of ABA treatment by all plans/options is necessary,” reads a letter sent late last week to insurance carriers interested in servicing the government program.

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“Therefore, for the 2017 plan year, carriers may no longer exclude ABA for the treatment of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). We expect all carriers to offer clinically appropriate and medically necessary treatment for children diagnosed with ASD,” the notice states.

The move comes three years after federal officials began encouraging plans that service government workers to include ABA coverage. At present, however, many federal employees remain without the benefit, according to Edmund Byrnes, a spokesman for the Office of Personnel Management.

“OPM has closely monitored both the research supporting ABA and the provider supply which has increased in recent years. Our 2017 requirement reflects the needs of our members, the growing number of qualified providers who can safely and effectively offer ABA, as well as research linking behavioral interventions for children with ASD with positive outcomes,” Byrnes told Disability Scoop.

Advocates say that the mandate from the nation’s largest employer-sponsored health benefits program is a step in the right direction. Already, legislation has been passed in 43 states requiring at least some insurance plans to cover ABA, according to Autism Speaks.

“This is absolutely huge news for the autism community,” said Lorri Unumb, vice president of state government affairs at Autism Speaks. “We applaud OPM for stepping up to the plate and requiring ABA coverage for the 8 million people in FEHB plans.”