Senate passes autism bill, dares House to do the same

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Just as it did last year, the Georgia Senate has unanimously passed a bill requiring insurance coverage of autism treatments for young children and has essentially dared the House of Representatives to pass it as well.

“This vote sends a very strong message that there are 56 members in this body that are prepared to vote for these kids this session,” Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said after the Senate voted 54-0 Thursday to approve SB 1.

Two senators missed the vote on SB 1 – Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson (D-Tucker) and Sen. Rick Jeffares (R-McDonough) – but both of them voted to pass a similar bill last year.

“I hope my colleagues in the House will take a similar path with SB 1 in order to give autistic children in our state the chance to reach their full potential in life,” said Sen. Charlie Bethel (R-Dalton), the bill’s sponsor.

The Senate vote sets the stage for another session-long struggle with the House leadership over the bill, which is supported by healthcare advocates but opposed by business groups like the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB).

“I can count on one hand the number of bills the Chamber of Commerce or the NFIB has supported that I haven’t voted for,” said Sen. Fran Millar (R-Dunwoody). “But I’ve got to tell you, folks, on this issue they’re wrong.”

Speaker David Ralston and other House leaders have been skeptical about the autism coverage bill because of what they see as the cost issues for small businesses.

“My concern is that we have to have a resolution that’s fair and doesn’t work a hardship on businesses that results in people losing jobs because of a mandate,” Ralston said in an interview earlier this week.

Senate supporters of the bill contend it is more economical in the long run to provide treatment to autistic children at an early age so as to avoid the need for more expensive treatments later.

“We’re saving taxpayer dollars by helping these kids with the early intervention,” said Sen. Renee Unterman (R-Buford). “This is a wise investment for the state’s budget, it’s a wise investment for family. It is our fiduciary duty to take care of children with special needs.”

SB 1 would require healthcare insurers to cover the cost of autism treatments for children aged six and younger, with a yearly cap of $35,000 on the payment for treatments.

The bill that was passed by the Senate last year was combined with a House-passed measure legalizing medical marijuana, and the merged version of the bill did not pass either chamber prior to adjournment.

© 2015 by The Georgia Report

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Tags: autism coverage , Casey Cagle , Charlie Bethel , David Ralston , Fran Millar , Georgia Senate