Autism mandate halted in Georgia House committee

Autism mandate halted in Georgia House committee

March 25th, 2015 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

Rep. John Meadows, R-Calhoun, left, and Rep. Richard Smith, R-Columbus, talk during a hearing at Georgia's State Capitol on Tuesday, March 26, 2013, in Atlanta.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

A bill to mandate autism coverage for some Georgia children looks dead for this year.

The chairman of the House Insurance Committee told a group of reporters Monday that he doesn't plan to bring the legislation to a vote, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution. State Rep. Richard Smith, R-Columbus, said the bill will not cover enough people.

His comments echo those of Gov. Nathan Deal, who told multiple media outlets earlier this month that the bill unfairly targets small-business owners.

If passed, the legislation would have mandated insurance companies cover up to $35,000 a year for Applied Behavioral Analysis for children younger than 7. ABA is intensive therapy that helps a child with autism overcome social and communication barriers, allowing them to gain the average social and learning skills of most children their age by the time they reach first grade.

Of the 38 states with autism mandates before this year, according to the Autism Speaks advocacy group, bill sponsor Sen. Charlie Bethel, R-Dalton, said Monday that the annual cost of the increased coverage was $4.32 per enrollee.

But as critics point out, his proposed legislation only affects a small number of insurance plans in Georgia -- about 15 percent, said Bethel.

Many large companies fund their own insurance plans, which the federal government regulates. Small companies tend to join more traditional, "fully funded" insurance plans. State officials regulate those.

"The question that none of y'all seem to be asking is why we are not seeing pressure on Congress," said Deal, referring to self-insured plans offered by large companies.

Similar legislation died in Tennessee this month. Sen. Sara Kyle, D-Memphis, wrote a bill that would have forced some insurance companies to cover autism therapies up to $50,000 for children younger than 10 and up to $25,000 for teens younger than 16.

Kyle's bill failed in the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee on March 10.

Bethel believes that providing such coverage will ultimately save the state money. He said many of those children will attend classes with most students their age instead of sitting in more-expensive special education classrooms. And because their education will be more advanced, Bethel said, those children will be more likely to hold a job.

As a result of all this, Bethel concluded these children will ultimately stay off welfare and stay out of prisons. That demands less taxpayer money, he told insurance committee members.

Representatives from the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Business and the Georgia Association of Health Plans all spoke out against the bill Monday. They said small businesses cannot shoulder another mandate. They also doubt the insurance mandate will only cost $4.32 per member, per year.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at tjett@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476.


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