Senate approves bill requiring insurance coverage for autism treatment

With a unanimous decision, the Georgia Senate approved a bill on Thursday that would require insurance companies to provide autism treatment coverage for young children.

The 54-0 vote echoed a unanimous vote on similar legislation approved by the Senate during last year’s session.

Senate Bill 1 will likely reignite one of the most controversial issues from last year’s legislative session, when the chamber used a similar proposal as a wedge that eventually sank both it and a popular medical marijuana bill. With the state Legislature starting fresh in the first of a two-year cycle, supporters believe they have enough time to find common ground with opponents.

Both business advocates and health care insurance groups oppose the plan, which has been kicked around the Gold Dome since 2009 without passage despite winning Senate support last year.

Although it flared noticeably last year, hundreds of advocates have spent at least six years pushing for autism coverage, many of them inspired by a young Georgia girl named Ava Bullard who has inspired the Senate to nickname SB 1 as “Ava’s Law.” Ava, now 10, began applied behavioral therapy for autism at age 3 and now functions well.

Previous efforts were broad, but starting last year, senators narrowed their reach in an effort to win passage. Those limits remain: SB 1, among other things, would apply only to children 6 years and younger; annual payouts would be limited to $35,000; and businesses with 10 or fewer employees would be exempt.

The bill would exempt insurers from having to cover autism if they could verify it would raise all premiums by more than 1 percent. The bill would also not apply to large companies that self-insure employees’ coverage —- although many of them, including Home Depot and Georgia Power’s parent, the Southern Co., already provide something similar.

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