By TIM TALLEY
Associated Press Writer
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- Republican leaders of the Oklahoma House unveiled a plan Tuesday to increase the number of therapists for autistic children in the state but said they remain opposed to an insurance coverage mandate for the disorder.
Continuing GOP opposition to an autism mandate may set the stage for another emotional showdown with Democrats and the parents of autistic children who support mandate legislation that passed the Senate last year but was blocked in the House. Similar legislation has been filed this year.
"Their plan is a step in the right direction, but it is only one step," said Sen. Jay Paul Gumm, D-Durant, author of mandate legislation known as "Nick's Law," named for an 11-year-old autistic boy from Edmond, Nick Rohde.
"Without some kind of private insurance component, the House's proposal will fall woefully short of dealing with the epidemic of autism," Gumm said.
"I do welcome their statements as a small first step forward. But they're ignoring the 800-pound gorilla," said Nick's father, Wayne Rohde.
"Practitioners will come to this state when they have a means of receiving desirable incomes," he said. "Nick's law would help thousands of children in Oklahoma. Their own plan is deny services to these children."
Republican House leaders refused to hear Nick's Law last year, claiming it would drive up the cost of health insurance for Oklahomans. Oklahoma already has 36 health insurance mandates.
A study prepared for the House that was released last week said an insurance mandate would increase health insurance rates by at least 7.8 percent and possibly as high as 19.8 percent.
Wayne Rohde said the study was "nothing short of a desperate move" and was full of errors.
"They are continuing to protect the insurance companies," he said.
Gumm said such increases have not been experienced in other states with autism insurance mandates.
Republican House Speaker Chris Benge of Tulsa acknowledged that the debate over Nick's Law was one of the most politically divisive of the 2008 Legislature. The Legislature convenes again on Feb. 2.
"This is an emotional issue. It's one that's been difficult for us to deal with," Benge said. "Issues that deal with children are so emotional."
But Benge and Speaker Pro Tem Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, said a requirement that health insurers cover the diagnosis and treatment of autism would be ineffective because of a shortage of trained providers that makes it difficult for families to obtain autism services.
Autism is a bioneurological disability that affects communication skills in young children, many of whom also suffer from ailments such as allergies, asthma and epilepsy. Officials estimate it affects about one of every 150 children.
House members conducted a series of hearings on autism last summer that found there is a lack of behavioral analysts and other legitimate service providers for autistic children in the state.
An autism pilot program conducted by the state Department of Human Services provided about $12,000 a year to each of 29 families with autistic children to obtain autism-related services, officials said. But many families ended the year with a significant amount of money unspent due to the limited number of legitimate providers.
"We found there's a glaring lack of service providers in our state," Steele said. "A mandate doesn't matter unless you have service providers."
Among other things, the House plan calls for a licensing process for national Board Certified Behavioral Analysts and enhancement of existing state programs to train doctors to diagnose and treat autism.
It would also enhance Sooner Start, Oklahoma's early intervention program for children with disabilities and developmental delays up to age 3, by providing professional training on the treatment of children with autism spectrum disorders.
Steele estimated that implementing the proposals will cost about $500,000.
Anne Roberts, executive director of the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy, said rising autism rates among Oklahoma children calls for more effort to increase the availability of qualified service providers.
"This new initiative, with its multi-pronged approach, is an enormous step toward overcoming the barriers to the services so desperately needed by these children and their families," Roberts said.