Autism measures set stage for major legislative battle
Partisan clash returns over insurance mandates

Published: January 19, 2009

Michael McNutt

House Democrats vow to continue trying to require insurance companies to provide treatment for autistic children in what likely will be a major battle this legislative session.

Leaders in the Republican-controlled House, who last year did not take up measures dealing with the growing number of autistic children in the state, are suggesting more therapists and specialists would be a better solution than mandated coverage.

"I’m gratified to see that the speaker is aware of at least some of the challenges Oklahoma families face in seeking care for their autistic children,” said Rep. Mike Brown, D-Tahlequah.

House Republicans are proposing enacting a licensing process for national board-certified behavioral analysts and expanding state programs that train doctors to diagnose and treat autism.

"Currently, there is a huge imbalance between supply and demand,” said House Speaker Chris Benge. "We have only a few true providers in Oklahoma, but potentially thousands of children needing services.”

Study cites shortage
During a 2008 House legislative study, lawmakers were told a shortage of trained providers has made it difficult for families to obtain autism services even when they have state assistance.

A pilot program that ended last year provided families $12,360 a year to obtain autism-related services. Much of the money went unspent because there were not enough professionals trained to work with children with autism, said Jim Nicholson, director of the developmental disabilities division of the state Department of Human Services.

"Focusing on increasing the pool of qualified service providers will avoid many of the frustrations experienced by people in other states of having greater access to services but finding no services to access,” he said.

Rep. Wallace Collins, D-Norman, said the House Republicans’ plan would be helpful, but most families still need some financial help to get services for autistic children.

"I’m heartened to hear that House Republicans are interested in increasing training for autism specialists, but what I want to know is, what are they going to do for families who need help now?” Collins said. "Do they expect parents of children with autism in our state to sit back and wait for ‘market forces’ to help their children?

"If we provide insurance coverage for autism in our state, then the providers will come to take advantage of it,” Collins said.

It’s unknown how many autistic children are in the state. According to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in every 150 children in the U.S. is diagnosed with autism. It is considered the fastest-growing developmental disability. Research indicates early intervention can help.

Senate bill filed
Sen. Jay Paul Gumm has filed Senate Bill 1. It is similar to a measure that died in the House that would have required insurance companies to provide coverage of autistic children. He said the House Republican plan "falls short” of what is needed.

He said any strategy to help children with autism must include insurance coverage.

"Even House Republicans acknowledged during their interim studies the woeful lack of autism therapists in Oklahoma,” he said. "Every one of their proposals will cost taxpayers money. And the small amount they are willing to commit to this epidemic is wholly inadequate to meet the needs.”

Rep. Daniel Sullivan, R-Tulsa, said Oklahoma families primarily need therapists and behavior analysts to help their autistic children.

Building up services
"All the money in the world won’t help a patient who can’t find a doctor,” Sullivan said.

Gumm said progress is being made.

Parents of autistic children were kept twice last year from speaking to a House committee.

"With the passion and effort of these parents, we have dragged the House leadership from literally slamming doors in parents’ faces to offering a partial solution,” Gumm said.