Senate approves insurance coverage for autism therapy for young children

Insurance companies would have to cover autism therapy for children 6 years and younger under a mandate passed Tuesday by the Georgia Senate.

Chamber leaders hailed the 51-0 vote for Senate Bill 397, which they said would provide some of the state’s youngest children the help they need to succeed later in life.

Business and insurance groups continue to oppose the effort, however, and warn it would increase health insurance premiums across Georgia.

Hundreds of advocates have spent at least five years pushing for autism insurance coverage, many of them inspired by a now 9-year-old Georgia girl named Ava Bullard. Ava is the great-niece of Sen. Tommie Williams, the chamber’s former president pro tem. She began applied behavioral therapy for autism at age 3 and now functions well.

SB 397, sponsored by Senate Insurance and Labor Chairman Tim Golden, R-Valdosta, does not go as far as many of the advocates would like, but most have celebrated it as a first step. Senate leaders, who fast-tracked the bill after weeks of behind-the-scene negotiations, have acknowledged it is a compromise that seeks to lessen complaints from opponents.

Senate leaders chose the age limit to help young children who are not yet school age, meaning they are not covered by an individualized education program mandated by the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act.

The bill would also limit annual payouts to $35,000 and exempt businesses with 10 or fewer employees.

The bill would 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.

Thirty-four states mandate private health insurance coverage for autism. Others, including Mississippi and Tennessee, have recently debated it.

SB 397 now goes to the House for consideration.

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