State Capitol News Service
OKLAHOMA CITY May 14, 2009 02:31 pm
— The Oklahoma Legislature remains divided on the issue of assisting families with autistic children, despite enactment of a new law designed to make services more available and affordable.
Even Democratic Gov. Brad Henry, who signed the law into effect May 4, expressed concern that the measure was only “one very small step” in the effort to help Oklahoma families dealing with autism.
Senate Bill 135, authored by Sen. Ron Justice, R-Chickasha, proposes to increase autism services and provide funding to train in-state specialists so families won’t have to travel out-of-state to obtain help.
The bill was one of several introduced this year in an attempt to increase care for autistic children. Like the other bills, SB 135 has caused much controversy between Democrats and Republicans.
Autism is a brain development disorder characterized by impaired social interaction and communication. Experts have testified that it afflicts as many as 1 out of 150 children, yet one study showed Oklahoma had only 10 autism treatment specialists.
Eighteen states have enacted some form of coverage mandate to make insurance companies help pay the cost of autism treatment. But the Oklahoma Legislature has balked at doing so, citing concerns that requiring coverage would increase health insurance premiums for everyone.
SB 135 does not force Oklahoma insurers to cover autism. Justice and most of his fellow Republicans insist it will provide relief for the families of autistic children by increasing the availability of in-state services. House and Senate Democrats generally disagree, claiming families will still be unable to afford services even if there are more specialists available to provide them.
In February, the Republican-controlled House Economic Development and Financial Services Committee voted down House Bill 1312, also known as “Nick’s Law,” which would have required insurance providers to cover autism treatment. The panel also voted to prohibit the Legislature from proposing similar measures until 2011.
Democrats offered a compromise — to put autism coverage in high-risk insurance pools as a last resort for families who can’t afford the coverage elsewhere.
Republicans again declined, and instead went forward with SB 135 and its House version, HB 2027. Subsequent votes tended to stick to party lines.
Henry and other Democrats generally don’t oppose the legislation, which they say is better than nothing. But they contend that attempts to solve the problem in reverse, by increasing services but not helping families pay for them.
“It’s all in the wrong order. It doesn’t provide any relief for families,” said Sen. Jay Paul Gumm (D-Durant), who tried unsuccessfully to amend SB 135 to include high-risk insurance benefits after Nick’s Law was shot down. “The glimmer of good in it is that it gives state recognition to apply state licensing therapies and encourages the training of therapists. But it creates a brain drain, because we’re going to train a bunch of therapists, and they’re going to move out of state since there isn’t a market here, and people won’t be able to afford the services.”
Democrats say the new specialists will be insignificant if autism is not added to high-risk insurance policies and families can’t afford the services. Some claim Republicans won’t budge on the issue because of financial ties and campaign commitments to insurance companies. Republicans dismiss such accusations.
Justice said the bill is actually the first step toward relief, since experts would advise how to best create affordable service and how to keep insurance costs from skyrocketing.
“To me, it’s the foundation,” Justice said. “If we don’t have the right experts who understand them (autistic people), we might waste all kinds of money. We have to know what we’re doing before we start spending.”
Nick’s Law was endorsed in the Senate four times last year, but was denied a hearing in the House.
Rep. Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, the House sponsor of HB 2027, said he agrees with other Republicans who oppose mandated coverage because it could raise insurance premiums for everyone, making health coverage less affordable. But Gumm said such concerns are unfounded, based on the financial impact of mandated coverage in other states.
“Why does California have cheaper premiums than we do when they have mandated coverage?” Gumm asked after a floor debate about autism coverage on May 6. “The evidence just is not there to support that claim.”
Currently, 18 states require mandated medical coverage for autistic children. More than 30 are considering measures to add the insurance requirement. Gumm and Henry have both pledged to keep fighting for passage of Nick’s Law.
When Henry signed SB 135, he challenged lawmakers to expand services to children with autism.
“To provide comprehensive assistance to the families of children with autism, we must also approve legislation extending insurance coverage to treatment of this developmental disability,” Henry said.
Said Gumm: “I will never stop fighting for these kids and their families. They’re too precious. The families are struggling too hard.”
RAY MARTIN is a senior journalism student at the University of Oklahoma who is writing a weekly legislative report for the Oklahoma Press Association.
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