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Autism bill gets committee chair sign off, full day’s focus next Wednesday

By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter

MONTGOMERY — After threats to hold it back, Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Montrose, said Thursday he would sign a bill out of committee that would mandate coverage for autism therapy. Sen. Del Marsh, president pro tem of the Senate, has promised it will be the sole focus of a special order calendar in the upper chamber next Wednesday.

“It is our full intention to take full attention to that bill on Wednesday,” Marsh said. “That gives us Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, if we need it, to deal with that. I would hope we will be able to deal with it on Wednesday, though.”

The Senate will focus on budgets on Tuesday, but the rules chairman has promised to put the autism bill alone on a special order calendar for next Wednesday, Marsh said. The chamber will focus on that bill until it comes to a vote.

Pittman sparked threats of filibuster Wednesday when he said he would not sign the bill out of committee, even after it passed with only two nays after several hours of debate. The budget committee chairman changed his tune Thursday morning, saying he would send the bill on to the floor.

“This has been one of the most difficult decisions I’ve had to make,” Pittman said Thursday. “After nine years of balancing budgets and trying to pay back debts, this is a very sensitive issue and a very important bill that affects a lot of people. At the end of the day, we have to be able to pay for the costs of it.”

The bill, which would mandate insurance coverage for an autism spectrum therapy called applied behavioral analysis therapy, has had many senators demanding a vote and some promising an inconvenient slowdown in Senate business if the opportunity for one isn’t provided.

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The bill’s supporters say the mandate is needed to ensure families can afford the important but expensive therapy.

The coverage can cost thousands of dollars a month if it isn’t covered by a family’s health insurance coverage. In Alabama, the ABA therapy is currently not covered by Blue Cross Blue Shield, the state’s largest provider.

Forty-five other states have mandated the coverage. Alabama is one of the few that doesn’t. But detractors, including the Business Council of Alabama and conservative Republicans in the State House, such as Pittman, say the bill would raise insurance premiums for the average family.

“The insurance companies are not going to pay for this coverage,” Pittman said. “The employer that normally pays the cost of the employee and the employee that covers their family will be paying these costs.”

Strong political headwinds from activists and constituents have pushed Senate leadership to let the bill move forward. Dozens of supporters and parents with children on the spectrum have flooded the State House over the past two weeks, urging lawmakers to pass the bill.

Last week, proponents of the bill flocked to the bill’s foray in committee and begged lawmakers to pass the mandate so parents can afford the life-changing therapy for their kids on the spectrum. Sen. Cam Ward, a Republican, has been a strong advocate of the bill and has a personal stake.

His 14-year-old daughter, Riley Ward, is on the spectrum and has had the therapy. She spoke to the committee last week, crediting the therapy for her ability to speak in front of a room packed with legislators and onlookers.

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“I grew up in my dad’s political life, going to boring dinners,” Riley Ward said. “I would lay on the floor and watch DVDs to block out the loudness. Without the help this coverage would provide, I wouldn’t be able to speak here today.”

Marsh, who is arguably one of Alabama’s most powerful lawmakers, said Thursday he is now committed to getting the bill onto the floor for a vote, but he previously seemed indifferent at best to Pittman’s delay tactics.

He said he met with Pittman Wednesday evening to urge him to pass the bill out of committee. Pittman said he would sign off on the bill after Marsh’s request.

“We’re not only committed to getting it to a vote in this chamber, we’re committed to getting it to the House in time to concur, if necessary, and to the governor,” Marsh said. “We are committed to getting an autism bill to the governor.”

Ward has called efforts to hold up the bill “disgraceful.” He, along with Sen. Dick Brewbaker and the bill’s Senate sponsor Sen. Tom Whatley, had promised to hold up the Senate and prevent passage of the Education Trust Fund budget if the autism bill didn’t get to the floor.

Brewbaker said he has confidence that Pittman and Marsh will keep their word on the autism bill, but he still appeared weary Thursday.

“Sometimes it’s good to be in an election cycle, and this is one of those times,” Brewbaker said. “I’ve been in the Legislature almost 12 years, in either the House or the Senate, and I’ve never seen a chairman hold a bill that’s passed a committee overwhelmingly because he was just opposed to the bill.”

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“Tripp hasn’t held the bill up, and he’s not going to hold the bill up. I fully expect him to keep the commitments he’s made before. It’s hard to get him to commit, but once he does, he sticks with it,” Brewbaker said.

Marsh and Pittman said they aren’t necessarily opposed to having insurance companies cover autism therapy. They are concerned, however, with what effects the bill may have on Alabamians’ insurance premiums and the State’s General Fund budget.

BCBS and the Business Council of Alabama have also opposed the bill. BCA President Billy Canary spoke at the commitee hearing last week and sent Pittman a letter against the bill.

One of the amendments passed Wednesday, if it is kept in the final version, would cap coverage at age 16. The therapy wouldn’t be covered for anyone over the age of 16, in hopes that it would keep costs down.

Marsh said he was worried in particular that more small business won’t pay for insurance coverage because it could become too expensive in a worst-case scenario.

“You’ve got to look at what could happen,” Marsh said.

Since amendments were tacked on to the bill in committee Wednesday, those amendments will either have to be removed on the floor of the Senate next week or the bill will have to go back down to the House for concurrence or conference and another vote.

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That could be a tight squeeze with only four legislative days left in the session.

Email Chip Brownlee at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

Chip Brownlee
Written By

Chip Brownlee is a former political reporter, online content manager and webmaster at the Alabama Political Reporter. He is now a reporter at The Trace, a non-profit newsroom covering guns in America.