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VA House passes bill mandating insurance for autism

Posted by on Feb. 3, 2011 at 3:19 PM
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VA House passes bill mandating insurance for autism

By Fredrick Kunkle

The Virginia's Republican-led House gave final approval Wednesday to a bill that would require insurers to include coverage for autism, all but guaranteeing passage by the General Assembly after an 11-year struggle.

Although the House bill passed with benefits that had been sharply limited compared to earlier proposals in recent years, advocates were thrilled.

"This bill is a huge step in the right direction for the state of Virginia," said Pat DiBari, president of the Virginia Autism Project, a nonprofit that grew out of a Loudoun County summit on autism that was held in August 2008.

The House bill HB2467, sponsored by Del. Thomas A. "Tag" Greason (R-Loudoun) and backed by Speaker William Howell, passed by a vote of 74-24.

The bill would require insurers to provide up to $35,000 a year for autism treatment, including applied behavioral analysis and other therapies, for children between the ages of 2 and 6 years old. The bill also would exempt firms with 50 or fewer employees and those which are self-insured. The bill would also allow companies to opt out of the coverage if it drove the cost of premiums higher than 1 percent a year.

"It is the most restrictive autism bill in the country, but it will help hundreds of families that need our assistance," Greason said Tuesday during the floor debate.

Some conservatives in the Republican-controlled House grumbled about its potential cost to taxpayers. Virginia's Tea Party voiced opposition to the bill, and the conservative group Americans for Prosperity went further, targeting Howell (R-Stafford), whose support was key to its success so far.

An impact statement prepared by the Department of Planning and Budget suggested that the annual cost would be $1.2 million -- a figure that Greason said was based on assumptions that did not pertain to his bill. Greason said the costs would range from $590,000 to $820,000 a year. The impact statement also noted that the Department of Resource Management has questioned whether the cap on coverage would conflict with federal law.

Del. Ben L. Cline (R-Rockbridge) proposed an amendment that would have required insurers to offer a package to businesses that included autism coverage but allowed businesses to choose not to buy it. His amendment was defeated.

Some Republicans were also uneasy about imposing a mandate on insurers at a time when the GOP has been flailing President Obama, Washington and the federal government for exceeding its powers. For the same reason, some Democrats gloated.

"After we pass this bill, I'm confident that we'll have no more partisan attack speeches about big government, about taxes, about job-creating, about economic environment--no more hypocritical accusations," Del. Mark Sickles (D-Fairfax) said during the floor debate Tuesday. "That's all behind us now...So let's pass a good stiff mandate, one that was not even included in Obamacare itself."*

The National Conference of State Legislatures says that 35 states and the District of Columbia now have laws related to autism and insurance. As of November 2010, at least 23 states specifically require insurance companies to provide coverage for treatment for autism. Others, including Maryland and the District, require at least limited coverage, the NCSL says.

A similar measure sponsored by Sen. Janet Howell was endorsed by the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday by a vote of 15-0.

Gov. Robert F. McDonnell's office has said he has not made up his mind whether he would sign such a measure.

-- *the original posting mistakenly omitted a word in Sickles' quote...

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By Fredrick Kunkle  | February 2, 2011; 4:52 PM ET

by on Feb. 3, 2011 at 3:19 PM
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