Battle at the Capitol: The fight for autism insurance

1:12 AM, Feb 20, 2013   |    comments
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ATLANTA -- "My name is Anna Bullard and I'm from Lyons, Georgia."

She says it over and over, countless times in a single day, reciting her name and her hometown and her reason for being hours from that hometown, walking the halls of the Capitol.

Anna has a remarkable story to tell, the story of her eight year old daughter Ava, who couldn't talk, dress herself, interact, or sleep - who was diagnosed with autism at two and a half years old, who after years of therapies at a cost of $50,000 dollars a year, is thriving.

MORE | See more of Anna's story, hear from her mom and sign the petitions for or against HB 309, requiring insurance plans cover autism.

And all of that happened with no help from insurance.

Anna recalls, "Before Ava was diagnosed she was covered. Once she was diagnosed, they would not longer pay for it."

Ava's success story is incredible, but not unusual. Not for the children who receive intensive early intervention therapies.

That's why Anna cannot be satisfied -- she wants each of the estimated 30 thousand children with autism in Georgia to have the same chance to find their voices -- to lead independent lives.

There is no law in the state of Georgia requiring health insurance plans to cover autism. Thirty-two other states require it. Military and federal government insurance plans cover it. But in Georgia, insurance companies don't have to cover autism treatment. And many don't.

Senator Renee Unterman, an insurance executive says it's a slippery slope.

"If you raise the rates on insurance, you have the probability of more people not being able to afford insurance."

Yet studies from states that have required autism insurance -- including South Carolina and Florida-- show that the coverage added an average of thirty-two cents per person per month.

Unterman says, "It doesn't seem a lot. But for that one advocate you've got down here, you've got ten other advocates who want to add other mandates onto insurance and it's a cumulative effect."

In some ways, it's about a dirty word. Mandate. Lawmakers don't like that word. They don't like the idea of the government forcing them to do something.

The Harvard School of Public Health estimates the cost of caring for someone with autism over their lifetime at more than $3 million dollars. That number drops dramatically if that person with autism can lead independent lives.

Representative Ben Harbin, the sponsor of the bill, says "We can make sure that child that's been diagnosed with autism gets the coverage they need in those early years. And they can lead a better quality of life. They can go on and be in the normal classrooms, not the expensive special needs. It saves us money, saves the taxpayers and the insurance companies money in the long run."

Harbin says the bill ought to appeal to Republicans, who hold a super majority in both houses, because it would treat autism early and save money later.

Melissa Solares' five year old son Arturo was diagnosed with autism last year. She says their family spent over $100,000 dollars out of pocket. Melissa is a nurse. Her husband is a surgeon. She says they will leave Georgia for South Carolina if the bill doesn't pass.

"My husband and I have a choice. We chose Georgia. Because Georgia provided a life that we believed in. And if they can't give it to us we are going to have no option but to leave because we can choose to go somewhere else."

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