Friday, February 6, 2009

Oklahoma House committee kills autism mandate

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By The Associated Press
Published: February 3, 2009
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OKLAHOMA CITY — Legislation to require health insurers to cover the diagnosis and treatment of autism was killed Tuesday evening by a state House committee that effectively blocked the mandate proposal from being considered in the House again for two years.
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Instead, the Republican-controlled House Economic Development and Financial Services Committee unanimously approved legislation to increase the number of certified therapists for autistic children.

Supporters said an autism coverage mandate would drive up health insurance rates in Oklahoma and that it is meaningless to consider one until there are enough therapists to do the job.

"The discussion we're having today, in my opinion, is premature," said House Speaker Pro Tem Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, author of the therapist bill. "We're not ready for this kind of mandate because the services do not exist."

"I don't believe that providing a promise without a solution is what we need," said the committee's chairman, Rep. Dan Sullivan, R-Tulsa.

Supporters of the mandate bill, known as "Nick's Law" after for an 11-year-old autistic boy from Edmond, Nick Rohde, argued that therapists will not move to the state to provide services to autistic children without a guaranteed revenue stream to pay them, like that provided by mandated health insurance coverage.

"Without any help, we know where they're going to end up," said the bill's author, Rep. Mike Brown, D-Tahlequah, who said taxpayers eventually will have to pay for the care of dysfunctional autistic children.

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 out of every 150 children in the U.S.

Along party lines, committee members voted 10-5 against a motion to send the autism mandate measure to the House floor as dozens of autistic children, their parents and other family members crowded into House meeting rooms to hear discussion and debate on the autism bills.

It then voted 9-5 for a do-not-pass motion that under House rules will prevent the mandate idea from being considered again until a new Legislature is seated in 2011.

"The language is dead — really dead," Brown said. "It cannot be heard for two years.

"They wanted this off the plate," Brown said of House Republican leaders. "They did not want to deal with that."

Autism mandate legislation was passed by the Senate last year but was blocked in the House. Similar legislation is pending in the Senate again, but Sullivan said he will not schedule a hearing on the bill if it reaches the House.

After the meeting, some parents held photographs of their autistic children as lawmakers left the meeting room.

"It was a foregone conclusion," said Wayne Rohde, Nick's father. "What are they telling us back there? That we don't want to help these kids to the level that we need to?"

While Medicaid covers some services for the autistic children of low-income families and the wealthy can afford to pay, middle-income families struggle to afford behavioral and occupational therapies for their children. Rohde has said he spends up to $5,000 a month for therapy for his autistic son.

"You're throwing those parents into bankruptcy," Brown said.

Eight other states have passed the same autism mandate legislation and 10 states have similar laws, Brown said. Thirty-two states are considering a mandate to provide some relief to the families of autistic children.

"And the best thing we can do is look them in the eye and tell them to move to another state?" asked Rep. John Carey, D-Durant, a member of the committee.

"That's exactly what we're doing," Brown said.

The mother of two autistic children, Dr. Juliet Burk of Tahlequah, said she left her practice in Oklahoma and moved in with family members in upstate New York where mandated therapies were provided at no direct cost. Therapies for one son cost $30,000 a year.

"We left to find a funded infrastructure," said Burk, a self-described conservative Republican who said early and intense therapy for her children helped reverse their autism diagnosis.

Brown disputed a study performed for the state House that said an autism mandate would increase health insurance rates by at least 7.8 percent and possibly as high as 19.8 percent.

Brown said other studies, including one by the Oklahoma State and Education Employees Group Insurance Board, concluded the cost would be 1 percent or less

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