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Autism insurance backed by panel
Autism insurance bill advances


Date published: 1/28/2011

BY Chelyen Davis

RICHMOND

--Bills to require insurance coverage for children with autism have passed a House committee, despite concerns that a new mandated coverage would be costly to businesses.

Similar legislation has failed in the House repeatedly in recent years. This year's bills had the support of House Speaker Bill Howell, R-Stafford.

On a 15-6 vote, the House Commerce and Labor committee approved the bills.

Sponsored by Del. Tag Greason, R-Loudon, and Del. Tim Hugo, R-Fairfax, the legislation would require private insurers and the state employee health plan to cover treatment for children between ages 2 and 6 with autism spectrum disorders.

The bills specified a $35,000 annual cap on payments, although several speakers said they didn't think that could be legally enforced.

The bills do not apply to businesses with fewer than 50 employees, which supporters said would help small businesses. Small businesses can have difficulty offering health insurance to employees because of the costs, and mandates on coverage increase those costs.

As a businessman, Greason told the committee, "I certainly recognize what mandates can do to a company."

Also exempted are self-insured companies.

Greason cited a study by the Joint Legislative Audit Review Commission that said covering autism treatment for children would cost less than a million dollars a year.

He also cited statistics from the Centers for Disease Control that show 1 in 100 kids now has autism, including one in 70 boys.

That's a 600 percent increase in the past 20 years, he said.

"Autism is an epidemic that we must pay attention to," Greason said. "Early intervention is the best way to provide treatment."

But business lobbyists lined up to oppose the bill, arguing that it would increase financial burdens on already-hurting businesses.

"This is only the first installment of a new mandate," said Mike Thompson, of the National Federation of Independent Businesses. "Government programs always end up costing more."

Howell said he approves of the bills and their exemption for smaller businesses.

"Early diagnosis and treatment of this neurological disorder is the key to effective care and treatment for children with autism and their families," Howell said. "I'm also pleased that these House bills include provisions that take into account the impact on the bottom line of businesses and the state budget."

The bills--combined into one by the committee--will now go to the full House.

Chelyen Davis: 804/343-2245
Email: cdavis@freelancestar.com