Monday, February 2, 2009

House Autism plan misses the rim, and a great opportunity

By Bailey Dabney, Publisher

February 1, 2009 February 02, 2009 11:17 am— With what could have been a slam-dunk, the new Republican majority is shooting air balls. Rep. Kris Steele, R-Shawnee submitted an Autism bill to compete with Nick’s Law, named for the autistic son of Robyne and Wayne Rohde of Edmond.

Nick’s Law passed the Senate last year only to be blocked in the house. It faces tactical opposition this year in both chambers. In the Senate, Glen Coffee, R-Oklahoma City, wrote protections into Senate rules that make it nearly impossible for the minority party to get a vote on a bill affecting the insurance industry.It’s notably odd that he didn’t extend the same protections to other industries. In the House, Steele’s bill addresses all of the faults Republicans find with Nick’s Law, but it stops short of delivering treatments.

Here are the basics of the two plans, condensed to the core:

•Nick’s Law (Senate Democrats, House Democrats): Requires insurance companies to cover the behavioral therapies that have a 20-year proven track record of success in improving and even recovering autistics. These therapies are known as Applied Behavioral Approach (ABA) therapies. Reasonable limits and exclusions apply.

•Steele Plan (no nifty name yet): Fully fund only the training necessary to build a cadre of ABA certified therapists to administer ABA therapies. The parents who can afford to pay for the therapies, which are currently not covered in Oklahoma by the insurance companies, will have services for their children, the ones who cannot afford it will not have them. A large majority of parents cannot afford this necessary therapy without insurance coverage.

The Republicans find fault with Nick’s Law, saying that actuarially it will be burdensome to insurance companies, causing rates to soar and sending more Oklahomans to the roles of the uninsured. They produced a projection that showed double-digit premium increases. The problem with Steele’s argument, and the argument of the Senate leadership, is that they haven’t bothered to check in with the actual experience of any of the 18 states that have enacted similar legislation.

Their projection is nothing more than a generic calculation on a piece of paper. What does the real life experience say? Maybe they should have checked with the Republicans in Louisiana, who wrote a bill similar to Nick’s Law, which passed both houses unanimously and was signed by a Republican Governor (who spoke at the Republican National Convention).

Did they compare notes with studies done by Pennsylvania before passage of their bill? The Democrats find fault with the Republican plan because it has no delivery method for the services. It doesn’t matter how many therapists you train if their clientele cannot afford to hire them. Once trained, they’ll just move to Texas where they can find work and insurance companies have to pay their part.

The Republicans have agreed, but not committed in any way to provide this training for the school systems. ABA should be done at school and home in order to be effective. So far the Republicans have said that’s a good idea, but I’ve yet to read anywhere that it’s become a part of their plan.

The Republicans and the Democrats must get together and pass BOTH of these plans. If the requisite hours of ABA, paid for by the insurance companies, would be excessive, then the passage of Nick’s Law AND HB 2027 fixes the problems of both bills, provided HB 2027 does go along with providing ABA in schools.How? The burden of ABA hours would then be shared by the school system, which must provide these children a free and appropriate education.

The Oklahoma Department of Education is encouraging the use of ABA in schools. They have sponsored ABA seminars throughout the state for teachers, therapists and parents. Research shows that children suffering from autism need 25 or more hours a week of ABA. The actuarial model that claims excessive insurance burden would be blown out of the water because ABA would be utilized at school and home.

Instead of jumping in with a real plan that has proven, tangible effects, some Republicans are making minimal effort with this counter bill that has no potential for a substantial outcome UNLESS it is coupled with Nick’s Law.

Some of our elected politicians do not want to do the right thing pertaining to the autism crisis, as long as they can say they did something. Nick’s law and the Republican counterpart are made for each other and should be joined together, ratified and implemented without any further ado.

Rep. Steele has now agreed to get the house version of Nick’s Law heard in committee on Tuesday Feb. 3. That is a good place to start. Don’t stop short of actually addressing this crisis with a real action plan that both sides of the aisle can show true bipartisanship for the well-being and future of all of our children.

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