A bill to mandate insurance coverage for autism swims upstream at the Capitol

If SB 397 were an animal, you would have to classify it as a salmon, making its implausible way upstream against a preposterous current.

The state Capitol has gushed anti-Obamacare legislation this session. Republicans have damned the Affordable Care Act and government intervention in health care with an intensity that has been stunning in its breadth and imagination.

Just to name two efforts: Gov. Nathan Deal has green-lighted HB 990, the effort to chip away at executive branch authority by ceding to the Legislature the right to expand Medicaid rolls. HB 707 would bar even a city dogcatcher from referring anyone to a federal health care exchange.

It is in this climate that, by a vote of 51-0, the Republican-controlled Senate passed SB 397, which would require health insurance policies sold in Georgia to cover behavioral therapy for children 6 and under who have been diagnosed with autism. That’s right. A health insurance mandate.

“It’s the right thing to do for Georgia’s children,” said Tim Golden, R-Valdosta, chairman of the same Senate Insurance Committee that is likely to pass out HB 707 today.

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle has also placed his own prestige behind the autism coverage bill, testifying for it in committee – the first time he’s done so in his eight years as president of the Senate.

And Gov. Nathan Deal may have given his sotto voce endorsement. For the first time, the governor’s new budget includes extra cash to make sure insurance policies for state employees include treatment coverage for autism.

Golden and supporters of SB 397 say the bill has naught to do with Obamacare – that the push for autism insurance coverage pre-dates the 2010 passage of the ACA. And this is true. Business interests opposed mandated autism coverage in Georgia even before Obamacare.

But the fact that the bill has gotten further than it ever has before, in a harsher climate, is well worth noting.

“It’s frustrating for us, because whether it’s a federal mandate or a state mandate, it ultimately costs our members in terms of higher premiums,” said Kyle Jackson, the Georgia state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, one of two business groups actively fighting the bill.

But neither the NFIB nor the Georgia Chamber of Commerce intend to “score” lawmakers who vote in favor of the autism bill – which amounts to quiet recognition of the clout behind the measure.

Part of the change in attitude is based on science. An abundance of data shows that the sooner a child is diagnosed and engaged in behavioral therapy, the less severe the repercussions will be later in life. This something that Golden points out when he takes fellow lawmakers on tours of the Marcus Autism Center, which operates under the umbrella of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and is the largest center for autism treatment in the Southeast.

Another thing to keep in mind: Bernie Marcus, the co-founder of Home Depot has pumped tens of millions of dollars into autism research, making Atlanta one of the top three study hubs in the nation. He is also a prolific donor to Republican causes.

Even tea party-types have gotten onboard. State Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, noted that the average public school student costs the state $6,556. Autism nearly triples that price.

“The whole notion that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure comes into play here,” McKoon said. “Yes, the state is mandating this coverage. But the indirect tax that is levied through the mandate – the taxpayer comes out ‘way ahead.”

“Does this increase the cost of doing business? Marginally, it does. And I’m going to own that. But I’ll defend it by saying that the benefit on the back end is well worth it,” McKoon said.

But even with Senate passage, it’s not entirely smooth swimming for this salmon of a bill. State Rep. Richard Smith, R-Columbus, chairman of the House Insurance Committee has shunted S.B. 397 to a “special subcommittee.” And House Rules Chairman John Meadows, R-Calhoun, an insurance salesman, is opposed to the measure.

So Golden has resorted to attaching his autism measure to several House bills in an effort to force a vote in the opposite chamber. On Wednesday, SB 397 was attached to the highly popular measure to legalize medicinal marijuana in Georgia – putting together the two causes that have attracted more moms and dads to the Capitol this session than any other.

While she didn’t endorse SB 397, Mary Fann probably would do so if asked. She came to the Capitol on Tuesday to testify against HB 875, the bill to lift restrictions on where permitted, concealed weaponry can be carried in Georgia.

She was there to argue for mental health background checks. Fann is a home-schooling mother with five children. Her second born was diagnosed, far too late at age 17, with Asberger syndrome, now considered a subset of autism.

“At home, he was scary. He tried to kill the dog. He pulled a knife on me,” she said. Ultimately, he walked into a pawn shop, bought a gun and killed himself.

Fann pointed out that her son had “the same exact diagnosis” as Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old who fatally shot 20 children and six adult staff members in a mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

In other words, we always pick up the check. It’s just a matter of when, and how much.

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