By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY — More children with Autism Spectrum Disorder in Alabama will soon have access to a needed but expensive therapy after the passage of one of this Session’s most-watched pieces of Legislation.
Last week, the Legislature approved a bill that would force insurance companies to provide insurance coverage for an Autism Spectrum Therapy called Applied Behavioral Analysis Therapy.
Gov. Kay Ivey signed the bill Friday afternoon, surrounded by members of the Autism community and the bill’s sponsors and strongest proponents in the Senate, where the bill was health up, Sen. Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) and Sen. Tom Whatley (R-Auburn). Rep. Jim Patterson (R-Meridianville) sponsored the bill in the House.
“I was talking to one mother who had to sell a house in Tuscaloosa and move to a house that cost $100,000 less to be able to afford the therapy payments,” Ivey said. “This bill is about the quality of life for wonderful children. This therapy does make a difference.”
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 was previously 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. The treatment can be highly effective in improving the social skills and behavior of children with Autism when started early enough.
“A lot of kids will be able to be mainstreamed and improved because this is a very effective [therapy], it’s just expensive,” Ivey said. “It was worth it to sign.”
Detractors, including the Business Council of Alabama and conservative Republicans in the State House, such as Sen. Trip Pittman, who threatened to hold the bill up in committee, said 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 pushed Legislative leadership to let the bill move forward. Dozens of supporters and parents with children on the spectrum flooded the State House over the past two weeks, urging lawmakers to pass the bill.
“This had a high profile,” Ivey said. “You can’t help it. It’s an emotional situation. These young children, they came up and hugged me. They don’t know me, but they want love. They’re so expressive.”
Earlier this month, 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. Ward, Whatley and Sen. Dick Brewbaker threatened to hold up Senate business had the bill not passed.
They ended up working with Democrats to get the bill passed.
“This has been something that everyday average parents and families have been fighting for, for years and years and years, only to come up short,” Ward said. “It’s rare when you see bipartisanship these days, and this is one of those times.”
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.
“We’ve already gone through our therapy, so personally this bill doesn’t affect us now,” Ward said. “It’s a moral victory because when we saw what she went through we were blessed to be able to pay for it. But there are many others who couldn’t.”
One of the amendments tacked on the bill 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. That amendment was removed before the final version passed. The bill, which is now an act, caps the age at 18.
A couple of other amendments were tacked on, but Whatley said they didn’t water it down.
“This is one of the best bills we’ve ever signed,” Whatley said. “This ABA therapy that they’re now going to be able to have will open up a world of opportunity. It will do a lot of good things for Alabama. It took Alabama from no coverage at all to probably in the top 12 or 15 even with having it capped at age 18.”
The law goes into effect in October.