The impasse over Georgia’s autism coverage bill has ended. A compromise between House and Senate leaders, announced Thursday, would clear the way for a...

The impasse over Georgia’s autism coverage bill has ended.

A compromise between House and Senate leaders, announced Thursday, would clear the way for a vote on the measure before the General Assembly session ends next week.

And the first legislative step came Friday morning, with approval of a newly reworked bill by the Senate Insurance and Labor Committee.

Rep. Richard Smith

Rep. Richard Smith

The compromise occurred only days after the autism legislation appeared stuck and probably doomed in the House Insurance Committee.

Senate Bill 1 would require many health insurance plans to cover applied behavior analysis (ABA), a treatment designed to help young children with autism reach their full potential in learning ability. The legislation would apply only to children 6 and under, and would not require coverage by large companies that self-insure their benefits.

A similar bill was unable to win approval last year, blocked in a standoff between the Senate and the House.

At the beginning of the week, it looked as though this year’s autism bill would also fail.

A House Insurance Committee hearing concluded its proceedings Monday with no vote taken on the bill. The panel’s chairman, Rep. Richard Smith (R-Columbus) said at the time that he did not plan to hold a vote.

But on Thursday, Smith and Sen. Charlie Bethel (R-Dalton), sponsor of the Senate legislation, held a news conference to announce an agreement.

They said the language in Bethel’s Senate bill would be combined in a House bill that deals with end-of-life insurance coverage, the Associated Press reported.

Under the deal, autism insurance would be capped at $30,000 a year, less than the $35,000 proposed in Bethel’s bill.

The two also announced support for Smith’s legislation that would let voters decide whether to levy a new fractional state sales tax to provide treatment for all children — from newborn through age 18 — with autism-related disorders, the AJC reported.

Sen. Charlie Bethel

Sen. Charlie Bethel

Bethel, in turn, vowed his support to get that proposal approved by the General Assembly next year, in time to have the issue on the ballot in the November 2016 election.

“I’m not the ogre everybody makes me out to be,” Smith said Thursday as he announced the agreement, according to the AJC.

“To me, this by far is the easiest thing to sell. I won’t have a problem voting for this sales tax increase. Matter of fact, I would like to be first in line at my precinct when we do vote.”

As expected, the Senate Insurance and Labor Committee approved the consolidated bill Friday. The legislation now can be voted on by the full Senate on Tuesday.

Then, if passed there, it would go back to the House, which would have to agree to the changes.

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said in a statement Thursday, “Today’s announcement marks a great day for the kids across Georgia who will have hope for a brighter future.”

One in 68 children has been diagnosed with autism nationally. In Georgia, the rate is 1 in 64.

Laws similar to the Georgia proposal are already on the books in 39 states, according to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

Earlier this week, business and insurance groups testified against the bill before members of Smith’s committee. Their objections were economic.

Kyle Jackson of the National Federation of Independent Business said his small business members were very concerned about the rising costs of health insurance.

If the autism bill passes, he said, “I’m not going to say the sky is going to fall . . . but there is a cost to this.”

Jackson’s testimony was backed by David Raynor of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce. And Graham Thompson of the Georgia Association of Health Plans said “there will be an impact’’ if the bill is approved.


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Andy Miller

Andy Miller is editor and CEO of Georgia Health News

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