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Autism bill faces test in Senate

Times Daily - 5/11/2017

MONTGOMERY ? Several Senate Republicans said they're ready to shut down work in the Statehouse if a bill that would benefit autistic children doesn't get to the Senate floor soon.

Proponents of a bill to mandate more insurance coverage in the state for an expensive therapy for autistic children fought off several amendments Wednesday that they say would have significantly weakened it.

The bill was approved in the Senate General Fund committee with two amendments from chairman Trip Pittman, R-Daphne. But now, the bill is in his hands and may stay there.

Pittman, one of two "no" votes on the bill, said he may not sign it out of his committee. As chairman, he can use a procedural rule to sit on the bill.

"We're just going to see; I'm thinking about it," Pittman said. "I'm still trying to do some negotiating."

Asked if the bill might not come to the Senate floor, Pittman said it might not.

"I'm thinking about all options," he said.

Several senators earlier this week said they would derail the remaining days of the session if House Bill 284 didn't advance to them for a vote.

Sen. Bill Holtzclaw, R-Madison, voted for the bill in committee and accused Pittman and others of trying to run out the clock on the bill.

Asked about Pittman's possible delay, Holtzclaw said this via text: "I'm thinking a nuclear meltdown of the session possibly leading to a special session for the budgets ? but then it's been an emotional day."

Pittman said repeatedly Wednesday he's concerned about the bill's costs to the state ? which haven't been totaled ? as well as businesses and individuals. He said initial costs to Medicaid could be several million dollars.

"The challenge you face with this treatment is this could be ongoing for somebody's life, and at this point you're talking about potentially $6,000 a month for the most intense treatment," Pittman said.

The bill would require state insurance plans and Medicaid to cover the therapy.

He tried with a substitute and multiple amendments to drastically reduce the scope of the bill. Only two passed. One specifies that businesses with fewer than 49 employees are exempt from the requirement. The other caps the age of children receiving the covered therapy at 16.

Because the bill was amended, if it clears the Senate, it must go back to the House. Lawmakers this week indicated next week will be the final days of the session.

Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Montgomery, said Wednesday that Pittman pledged to him earlier this week there'd be a Senate vote. He assumes Pittman will keep that promise today. But if he doesn't, "it's over."

"If 284 is not reported (out of committee today) there will be a motion to adjourn and a motion to adjourn every five minutes," Brewbaker said. "Which is a shame, because there are a lot of local bills left."

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, voted for the bill in committee. He said he spoke to Pittman multiple times after the meeting.

"If he wants to fight and try to ruin the lives of people who are depending on this, then he'll have a fight on his hands," Ward said Wednesday evening.

The bill passed the House unanimously last month and has brought passionate pleas from parents who say they've mortgaged their homes and considered moving to other states to get the life-changing applied behavior analysis therapy.

Opponents of the bill, including the powerful Business Council of Alabama and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama, have compared the mandate to Obamacare and said it will increase premiums. They've also said that the bill would still leave some children uncovered.

"Our primary objection to this bill is simple and very consistent," Robin Stone, a lobbyist for BCBS, said. "We believe employers should make this choice. What the Legislature is doing is replacing the choice of 1,100 businesses throughout the state with a legislative order. That's our concern."

Alabama is one of a few states that doesn't require the coverage.

Many in the audience at Wednesday's two-hour long committee meeting were wearing red T-shirts that said "Autism Matters." Among them were Todd Tomerlin of east Limestone County and his son, Gage, 17.

They were there in hopes that other families won't have to go through what they did, the elder Tomerlin said.

"We're not financially ruined, but, yeah, it's bad," he said. "We had to pay all that money years ago."

Gage received the therapy until the family simply couldn't afford it anymore, then his therapists showed the family how to try to continue to work with him on their own. Last year, Gabe learned to swallow pills -- a huge step, his father said.

Next to the Tomerlins was Summer Stewart of Hazel Green. Her 5-year-old son has received ABA for two years.

"It costs our family anywhere from $1,000 to $1,500 a month just to get him 10 hours," Stewart said. "He needs more hours, but we can't afford it."

Prior to ABA, Stewart's son was non-verbal and couldn't communicate. He didn't socialize well.

"Now, he makes eye contact, he's more social, he plays with his sister, he plays with other kids his age," Stewart said.

He's also in a mainstream kindergarten, she said.

Besides Pittman, Sen. Paul Sanford, R-Huntsville, voted against the bill Wednesday. North Alabama Republican senators Arthur Orr, Decatur, Larry Stutts, Tuscumbia, and Tim Melson, Florence, voted for it.

 
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