Sunday, January 30, 2011

Autism coverage bill makes it through Virginia House Commerce and Labor Committee

From The AP:

RICHMOND, Va. — A Virginia bill that would mandate some employee health plans to cover treatment for autism cleared a major legislative hurdle Thursday that has been the measure's killing field.

Backed by Speaker William J. Howell, the House Commerce and Labor Committee voted 15-6 to report the bill for a floor vote, likely early next week.

The measure would compel companies that employ 50 or more people and state government health plans to provide up to $35,000 per year in coverage for applied behavior analysis for autistic children ages 2 to 6.

Psychiatric and medical officials say ABA is the most effective and promising for children with autism, but annual costs in the tens of thousands of dollars have either put the treatment out of reach for many middle-income households and wrecked others financially and emotionally.

After the vote, parents of autistic children hugged and posed for photos to mark the unprecedented victory before a panel where powerful insurance and business lobbies had successfully targeted it before.

"We're very grateful for the support we got this year from the leadership in the House," said Theresa Champion of the Virginia Autism Project, the mother of an autistic son.

"We've got the most narrow bill we can possibly have and we've got the best that we're going to get in Virginia today," she said.

The bill's chief sponsor, Del. Thomas A. Greason, R-Loudoun County, acknowledged as much in presenting his bill to the panel. Unlike his bill, last year's legislation was introduced with no yearly or lifetime limit on costs, and it applied to children ages 2 through 10.

Some legislators were mindful of critics who warned that costs might soar, despite the annual expense cap and a provision in the bill that would allow any employer to opt out of autism coverage should its costs increase their premiums by more than 1 percent over any year.

"There's legitimate concern within the business community," said Del. Robert Purkey, R-Virginia Beach, in considering a sunset clause that would end the coverage mandate after three years unless it's extended.

In other states where autism treatment coverage has been mandated, costs have remained stable, Greason said. "The costs in the bill before us will not suddenly explode," he said.

But the bill's limited scope didn't placate insurance and business lobbyists who worked for days behind the scenes, seeking to sidetrack the bill. They complained it would place undue burdens on business and suggested hypocrisy by Howell and other lawmakers who oppose federal health care mandates while imposing them at home. They made it clear they're taking names.

"When allies change their position on something as important to small business as mandates, and do it without warning and without discussion, it deeply worries us," said Mike Thompson, chairman and president of the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy, a pro-business think tank, and a state board member of the National Federation of Independent Business.

"Don't you see the disconnect when the honest concerns of business seem to be left in the dust by those who consider themselves pro-business," Thompson said. "NFIB and the Virginia Chamber (of Commerce) will be using this vote in their voting records this year as will many other groups."

Howell rejected comparison of his opposition to the federal mandates and adding autism coverage to some policies in Virginia.

"It's a mandate, but it's a reasonably priced mandate. It's not going to cost a lot of money," Howell said at a news conference.

Reggie Jones, a lobbyist for the Virginia Association of Health Plans, argued that the $35,000 annual cap will most likely be meaningless because of federal mental health laws that supersede such caps. And that, he said, could cause costs to business to spiral.

But supporters noted a study by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, the General Assembly's investigative arm, that estimated annual costs for covering ABA treatments would add only about 58 cents per month for each covered employee to the premium costs.

The same study also showed that costs to Virginia government for adding the coverage for state employees would range from about $590,000 to $820,000.

Assured that the cash will be available in the 2012 budget, the committee reported the bill directly to the House floor without detouring it to the writing Appropriations Committee.