Unlikely to get a vote, autism bill gets a hearing

6:18 PM, Mar 11, 2013   |    comments
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8 year old Ava Bullard testifies before a Georgia Senate committee, backing a bill requiring insurance coverage for autism treatments.

ATLANTA -- The crowd overflowed to back an autism bill declared all but dead this legislative session. This hearing, they hoped, was more than a consolation prize.

Ava Bullard was present, distributing stickers to backers of the legislation. She is the south Georgia girl for whom the the bill is named. Ava's Law would require health insurance plans to provide coverage for the one-in-88 children diagnosed with autism.

MORE | Complete coverage of The Autism Gap: The Fight for Insurance

The eight year old's expensive treatment at an early age allowed her to move out of special education classes. It's treatment other families lacking insurance coverage mostly can't afford.

"My son has never said 'mama.' He can't say his name. He can't say 'I love you,'" Meg Andrade told lawmakers. Her son, Devon, is 11. He also attended the hearing, though he is unable to speak more than two words.

For Anna Bullard, Ava's mother, the hearing capped weeks of lobbying in the Capitol.

She and other backers -- including the families of children with autism -- worked the General Assembly on behalf of a bill that's still opposed by much of the insurance industry.

They pleaded a case that included data they say shows that autism treatment can cost more than a million dollars over a lifetime - yet coverage would only increase premiums by thirty two cents per month.

"Who's going to answer to our children?" asked Kathleen Laird, whose 11 year old son Davis does 22 hours of therapy per week. "These kids who don't have a voice?'

The emotion of the moment didn't necessarily overcome the cold politics of the legislature.

"There's a lot of bills that take a long time, and especially mandate bills," said Sen. Renee Unterman (R-Buford), who sat through most of the hearing and has challenged the cost analyses provided by backers of the bill. "I know I've worked on cervical cancer. I worked on (mammograms) and breast cancer. I've worked on many, many, many mandates and they take a long time."

The autism bill is assigned to a commission due to study it six more months.

"We still want a shot to get passed this session," said Anna Bullard, knowing that the bill hasn't gotten a vote, isn't scheduled for a vote and missed the "crossover day" cut last week, which typically kills legislation that hasn't passed one of the two legislative chambers.

The hearing nonetheless produced at least a thin ray of renewed optimism-- for a bill with motivated and persistent backers.

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