Saturday, May 3, 2008

OK snubs vote on autism mandate

by: Associated Press
5/1/2008 12:00 AM

OKLAHOMA CITY -- House Speaker Chris Benge said Thursday he does not plan to schedule a vote on legislation that would require health insurers to cover autistic children, despite pleas from parents that the bill be heard.

Benge, R-Tulsa, said House Republican leaders did not plan to bring the bill up out of concern that the autism mandate would drive up the cost of health insurance policies and make it unaffordable for many Oklahomans. The measure received bipartisan support when it passed the Senate.

"It's not easy to say no to something like this," Benge told reporters after a news conference about a task force that will study growing health care costs and uninsured Oklahomans. The parents of autistic children attended the news conference.

"It's very difficult. It's very emotional," Benge said. But an analysis of the autism mandate indicates it would increase the cost of state employee health insurance by $6 million a year, Benge said. That does not include possible cost increases imposed by private health insurers, he added.

"When we mandate something like this, it increases the cost," the House speaker said. "We don't want to make health insurance unaffordable for Oklahomans."

Parents of autistic children characterized any cost increase as minute and vowed to step up public pressure for the House to give the bill a hearing before lawmakers adjourn at the end of May.

"To protect the insurance industry, we're totally ignoring the taxpayers," said Wayne Rohde of Edmond, whose 10-year-old son, Nick Rohde, suffers from autism. The autism mandate bill originally passed by the Senate was dubbed "Nick┬Ás Law."

Rohde said House GOP leaders do not understand that refusing to require health insurers to cover the diagnosis and treatment of autistic children places the burden of caring for them on taxpayers.

"It's totally irresponsible to put all the pressure on the taxpayers and on the school districts for care," Rohde said.

The Senate author of Nick's Law, Sen. Jay Paul Gumm, D-Durant, accused Benge and House Republican leaders of "turning their back on Oklahoma's autistic children and their families."

"They deserve a vote on the floor of the House of Representatives," Gumm said. "One man cannot, nor should not, silence the voices of these families, these children and their duly elected representatives.

"Many of us are committed to continuing this fight for thousands of Oklahoma children and their families."

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