Autism coverage becomes law with signing

Just a month ago, the latest attempt to require autism coverage in Georgia insurance policies appeared dead.

Autism legislation was stuck in the House Insurance Committee in the waning days of the 2015 General Assembly session. Similar bills that had been proposed in previous years had stalled and ultimately failed.

Gov. Nathan Deal signs House Bill 429 as legislators and Ava Bullard (in green dress) look on.
Gov. Nathan Deal signs House Bill 429 as legislators and Ava Bullard (in green dress) look on.

But this time, a compromise between House and Senate leaders led to a reworked insurance bill that added the autism requirement language. The legislation was passed.

And on Wednesday, flanked by legislators and child advocates at the state Capitol, Gov. Nathan Deal signed House Bill 429 into law.

It will 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 applies only to children 6 and under, and does not require coverage by large companies that self-insure their benefits.

The treatment that’s now covered provides “hope and a fighting chance’’ for the one in 64 children in Georgia who have autism, Deal said before signing the bill.

Separately Wednesday, asked about a funding dispute involving Medicaid, the governor said it’s a concern that federal health officials are pushing Georgia to return more than $200 million in nursing home payments.

But he added that such payment disputes between states and federal officials often take years to sort out. “We’re early in that process,’’ Deal said at the Atlanta Press Club.

Inspired by a child

With House Bill 429, Georgia becomes the 41st state to pass autism coverage legislation.

Under the law, autism insurance will be capped at $30,000 a year. Employers with 10 or fewer employers are exempted.

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle called the bill “a very historic piece of legislation,’’ He also praised Deal, saying the governor “stepped up in a very courageous way’’ to add autism coverage for the members of the State Health Benefit Plan this year.

Cagle thanked young Ava Bullard of Lyons as the inspiration for the bill.

Ava’s mother, Anna Bullard, recently said that ABA therapy improved life for her daughter.

At age 2, the girl did not talk. The Bullards’ insurance policy did not cover ABA, but the family paid for her to get it. Now Ava “is at the top of her class’’ in a regular education curriculum, Bullard said.

Sen. Tommie Williams
Sen. Tommie Williams

Ava, now 10, attended the bill-signing ceremony along with her mother.

State Sen. Tommie Williams (R-Lyons), who is related to Ava, told GHN after the bill was signed that it took seven years for the autism legislation to pass. The state Senate, he said, always had enough votes for approval. “It was just the insurance companies [being] against it” that prevented a vote, Williams said.

Once again this year, business and insurance groups cited the rising costs of health insurance in opposing the bill. Proponents of the bill said coverage limitations were included to address concerns about costs.

The main sponsor of the legislation, Sen. Charlie Bethel (R-Dalton), praised Deal, Cagle and House Insurance Committee Chairman Richard Smith for their leadership on the final bill.

“This is a tremendous step forward for families with very young autistic children, but there is still a great deal of work to be done in this area,’’ Bethel said in a statement. “We will need to continue working together — legislators, families, advocates and the business community — to ensure all individuals with autism receive the emotional and financial assistance needed to reach their full potential.”