Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Nick's Law proposal returns for 3rd session

by M. Scott Carter
The Journal Record December 29, 2009


For Wayne Rohde, the third time could be a charm.

But the odds are stacked against him.Just weeks before the Oklahoma Legislature is set to reconvene, Rohde said he and state Sen. J. Paul Gumm, a Democrat from Durant, would try, once again, to pass legislation that would require insurance companies to cover patients diagnosed with autism.

Twice before the pair spent months fighting for their proposal – Nick’s Law.
Twice before they were defeated.

But this time, Rohde said, could be different.

“This will be the third straight session that Senator Gumm will introduce the legislation,” Rohde said. “We’re hopeful and optimistic that the Legislature will take a look at it.”

Under Nick’s Law, private insurance companies would be required to cover medically necessary and clinically proven medical treatments for children who have been diagnosed with autism by a licensed health care professional. Self-insured and federal employers would be exempt from the law and small business owners, he said, may choose to opt out of coverage under Nick’s Law.

The original bill, Senate Bill 1, remains in legislative purgatory in the Oklahoma Senate.

“This is very fiscally conservative health care,” Rohde said.

Rohde’s opponents say otherwise.

In May of 2008, Chris Benge, speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, said he was sympathetic to the plight of parents with autistic children, but had concerns about Gumm’s legislation. Benge would later play a major role in killing Gumm’s proposal.

“The burden they carry is great, their medical costs are high and they are desperate to find hope for their children,” he wrote in a letter to Gumm. “However, it must be a priority for policymakers to evaluate public policy on a comprehensive basis. We must weigh the implications of our policy decisions as to how they will affect all Oklahomans. While it is clear that Nick’s Law would benefit families with autistic children, we must determine with certainty the impact this mandate will have on access to health care for all Oklahomans.”

Mandates such as Nick’s Law, he said, drive up insurance costs.
“There is substantial, reliable data that shows mandates do in fact drive up insurance premium costs and in turn force people to drop insurance because it is no longer affordable,” Benge wrote. “Contrary to the popularly held opinion, mandates have little effect on insurance companies because they simply pass their increased costs on to the consumer.”

Later, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a conservative think tank, distributed flyers that praised state Rep. Ron Peters, a Broken Arrow Republican lawmaker who prevented a legislative hearing on Nick’s Law.

Peters, the OCPA said, was simply defending free enterprise.

Still, Gumm and Rohde said they would continue the push for an autism mandate.

This year, in addition to Senate Bill 1, Gumm said he filed Senate Bill 1316, which would include autism coverage in the state’s high-risk insurance pool.
“If you go back and look at the history of why the high-risk pool was created, you’ll see that it was created for people who couldn’t get insurance coverage anywhere else,” he said. “If that doesn’t sound like something that is tailor-made for families like those with children suffering from autism, then I don’t know what is.”

Rohde said Nick’s Law would prevent insurance companies from shifting their insurance costs onto the backs of taxpayers.

“The companies are taking advantage of a monopoly situation and shedding the risk off on taxpayers,” he said. “By changing the law, you allow people, parents who are currently purchasing insurance, to have coverage under a health insurance plan instead of seeking out taxpayer-funded services.”

It’s the same type of law, he said, that has been adopted in several surrounding states, including Texas and Louisiana.

There’s a lot of opposition here,” Rohde said. “There are some in the state Legislature which say they don’t want government to tell a private industry what to do. But those same people voted for tort reform, which is telling a private industry what to do. So there’s quite a bit of hypocrisy there.”

If lawmakers don’t take advantage of the third attempt to pass Nick’s Law, he said, they will eventually pay high costs because those families will seek taxpayer-funded services.

“The long-term approach is this: If we don’t address the needs of these children at an early age, the taxpayers will be providing long-term medical care for these children – who will become adults – for the remainder of their lives.”