House leader: Autism bill won’t move this year

The chairman of the House Insurance Committee said Wednesday that he will not allow a bill to pass this year that would mandate insurance coverage for treatment of autism for a limited number of Georgians.Instead, Rep. Richard Smith, R-Columbus, said he will introduce legislation later this week that would let voters decide whether to levy a new fractional state sales tax to provide treatment for all children with autism-related disorders.

Smith said Senate Bill 1 “is bad policy.” He said the bill would only provide coverage for 15 out of every 100 children with the disorder.

“What are you going to do with the other 85?” he asked. “How are you going to explain that to mom and dad, they’re not going to get treatment? It’s wrong. I will not pass that bill out of insurance.”

SB 1 has been a top priority of powerful senators for the past several years. Last year, Senate Health and Human Services Committee Chairwoman Renee Unterman, R-Buford, attached autism coverage language to a House medical marijuana bill in the session’s final days. Both ended up dying.

This year, Sen. Charlie Bethel, R-Dalton, sponsored SB 1, which passed the Senate unanimously in January. And senators are not rolling over for Smith. Late Wednesday afternoon, a Senate committee added SB 1 to House Bill 162, an unrelated insurance measure. If the amended bill passes the Senate, it would return to the House for a vote, but not to Smith’s committee.

Smith said he is “getting a lot of flak” for not advancing SB 1.

“Y’all are getting a lot of flak, too,” he told the House. “Send them to talk to me.”

Randy Grayson would like to talk to Smith. He’s a parent of a child with autism and is angry Smith is blocking the bill.

The proposed changes have “been pending in Georgia for seven years, and Richard Smith and the House Insurance Committee have never allowed it to have a fair and democratic vote, no matter how many hearings are held,” Grayson said. “That is fundamentally undemocratic.”

Smith said his alternative plan will call for a proposed constitutional amendment to create a two-tenths of 1 percent sales tax that would generate between $200 million and $300 million a year. That’s enough to pay for treatment for every Georgian age 18 or younger with autism.

Smith said members of the Senate Rules Committee — the panel that decides whether a bill makes it to the Senate floor for a vote — have “harassed” House members who ask for bills. Senators are holding up House bills sponsored by Insurance Committee members, he said.

“That’s OK,” he said. “Under this new option all Georgia autistic children from age of zero to 18 will be treated. I’m telling the children across the way over there (in the Senate) it’s either time to put up or shut up.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.