Impasse kills bills on autism, medical marijuana

Print Friendly and PDF By: Charles Craig Published: Mar 21, 2014

On the 40th and last day of the 2014 General Assembly session, political differences blocked legislation on medical marijuana for children with seizure disorders and a private insurance mandate for youngsters with autism.

Anthony and Sarah Caruso and their daughter Britlyn

Anthony and Sarah Caruso and their daughter Britlyn before a recent legislative hearing

Both measures got hung up and failed to pass as wrangling between different Republican factions in the GOP-controlled Legislature raged all day and into the evening. These disputes in the House and Senate continued even into the waning minutes of the session, which ended at midnight.

The House refused to budge on its opposition to a private insurance mandate to cover an autism therapy. The Senate held fast to its insistence that a bill legalizing non-smokable marijuana derivatives, such as cannabidiol (CBD) oil, also had to include a provision for the autism coverage.

In the end, the only outcome of the high-profile fight was agreement on a House-Senate study committee on the use of medical marijuana in Georgia.

The medical marijuana bill, introduced in the House by Rep. Allen Peake (R-Macon), was inspired by the plight of children with intractable seizures whose condition has been helped significantly by CBD, according to parents and physicians.

Efforts to require private insurers to cover a type of autism treatment, called applied behavioral therapy, have been ongoing in Georgia for five years, led by Sen. Tommie Williams (R-Lyon), whose niece’s daughter suffered from the condition and was successfully treated with the therapy.

The autism bill had the vigorous support of Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Sen. Renee Unterman (R-Buford), who issued calls from the Senate floor Thursday for their House colleagues to approve a bill that combined both autism coverage and medical marijuana.

Photo of the Georgia Capitol BuildingPeake, leading the House effort on medical marijuana, pleaded with Senate colleagues not to make his bill dependent on an insurance mandate that his House colleagues refused to support.

“Autism is a separate issue,” Peake told GHN. “There is funding in the budget for autism research and there is relief already in place. We were trying to take a first step with medical marijuana to help children with seizures.”

These bills were part of a horde of health care measures that largely dominated the 2014 session.

Among the most controversial was legislation targeting the federal Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

Georgia’s Republicans passed a bill to require legislative approval for any expansion of the state’s Medicaid program. Expansion is called for, but not compulsory, under the ACA.

Republican Gov. Nathan Deal already has steadfastly refused to expand Medicaid, saying the state ultimately could not afford it, even though the federal government would fund the expansion 100 percent for three years and phase down to 90 percent.

The General Assembly also passed an anti-Obamacare measure that would restrict Georgia employees of any state unit from spending state funds to advocate for the ACA’s Medicaid expansion provision, and would eventually halt the navigator program run by the University of Georgia, which helps Georgians use the federally run health insurance exchange. The legislation also would prevent the state from creating its own exchange.

Two other bills also generated significant controversy.

The House and Senate approved legislation requiring drug testing for food stamp and welfare recipients if they are suspected of using illegal drugs.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Greg Morris (R-Vidalia), said it would prevent taxpayer dollars from subsidizing illegal drug use and would save the state money. But opponents called the legislation unconstitutional, saying it would discriminate against the poor, and they predicted that passage would lead to court challenges.

The Republican majority couldn’t come to an agreement on a bill to privatize much of the state’s child welfare system, turning over foster care, adoption and case management services to private companies. The measure failed to pass.

Medical marijuana

The medical marijuana bill would have legalized the use in Georgia of CBD and other non-smoking marijuana derivatives for medical purposes, including cancer, glaucoma and seizure disorders.

Peake told GHN he will support the medical marijuana study committee and will be back next year to advocate on behalf of the children suffering from seizure disorders.

Parents of the children in attendance for the General Assembly’s last day were upset by the outcome and frustrated by the parliamentary politics of linking medical marijuana to autism coverage.

“They played games with kids’ lives,” said Sarah Caruso of Flowery Branch. She watched the final day’s legislative proceedings with her husband, Anthony, and 5-year-old daughter, Britlyn, who suffers from cerebral palsy and epilepsy.

“Autism is important,” she told GHN, “but autistic kids aren’t losing their lives.”

She said children, such as her daughter who suffer multiple seizures a day, “might not make it until the next year.”

The Caruso family and parents of other children with seizure disorders attempted to talk with Gov. Deal late Thursday night to ask for his help in persuading House and Senate Republicans to reach a compromise. They waited in Deal’s office, but neither the governor nor his assistants would talk with them.

The medical marijuana bill would have granted immunity from prosecution in Georgia for possession of CBD oil obtained legally in a state that permits the use of medical marijuana.

Twenty states have legalized medical use of marijuana and two states, Colorado and Washington, have legalized medical and recreational use.

There was no restriction on what medical conditions could be treated under the bill. The only limitation was that the non-smokable derivative be obtained legally in a state that permits use of medical marijuana.

But supporters acknowledged there was a legal catch if the bill passed. Transporting marijuana or its derivatives across state lines is a federal crime, even if it’s for medical purposes. That meant Georgia parents or adult patients who had state authorization would still have been at risk of arrest by federal authorities if caught bringing CBD from another state, such as Colorado where the oil is manufactured.

The bill’s language was vetted and approved by the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia (PACG), the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the Georgia Sheriffs Association. Their expressed desire was to keep recreational marijuana illegal in Georgia while not hindering children in need of treatment.

Autism treatment coverage

The bill mandating autism insurance coverage was limited to therapy for children 6 years old and younger and included a cap of $35,000 per patient on the annual cost of treatment.

In addition, employers and health maintenance organizations could have opted out of the coverage if the resulting increase in premiums exceeds 1 percent. Companies with 10 or fewer employees would be exempt from the mandate.

Although expensive, the autism therapy has been effective. Autism Speaks, a national autism science and advocacy organization, says nearly half of autistic children who receive early intervention with applied behavioral therapy will recover “typical function” and another “40 percent will make significant improvement.”

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