MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The Senate budget committee on Wednesday voted to mandate that insurers cover an intensive autism therapy, but the committee chairman said he might refuse to move the bill to the floor as he presses for changes to it.
The Senate Finance and Taxation General Fund Committee voted 14-2 for the mandate that insurers cover applied behavioral analysis, or ABA therapy. However, Committee Chairman Trip Pittman said after the meeting that he “might not” send the bill to the floor.
“I’m not sure about that yet,” Pittman replied when asked if the bill would move to the Senate floor this week. “I am still trying to do some negotiating.” As chairman, Pittman must sign the committee report to get the bill in position for a Senate vote.
Pittman said he has concerns about the cost of the coverage for taxpayer-funded insurance plans. “Now the Alabama Legislature, in the reddest state in the union, has mandated an additional health care coverage. … We are mandating the people have to pay for it,” he said.
Parents of children with autism have been fighting for insurance coverage of the therapy they said can be life-changing but at $100-per-hour is out of many families’ financial reach. Insurance companies and business groups have raised concerns about costs. The House approved the bill unanimously earlier this session.
Pittman’s stance immediately upset proponents of the bill. Sens. Cam Ward and Tom Whatley said they will slow down other Senate bills until the autism therapy bill is reported.
“The state Legislature will come to a halt. If we wants to defy the votes of the House, which were 100-0, and the votes of the committee, which were overwhelming, and play procedural games with kids’ lives, I’ll fight him on that,” said Ward, R-Alabaster. Ward’s daughter is on the autism spectrum.
Parents of children on the autism spectrum applauded after the committee approved the bill Wednesday but said they fear the bill could die in the remaining few days in the session.
“We want a vote on the bill. We’ve waited long enough,” said Rachel Robinson of Fairhope. Robinson drives to Florida each week so her 6-year-old son can attend ABA therapy. She said she credits “98 percent” of her son’s progress to ABA.
“It means he can go to a typical kindergarten class. He can make friends. He can interact with children and adults,” she said.
Blue Cross of Alabama, the state’s dominant insurance company, opposes the coverage mandate. The company sent lawmakers a letter saying they would begin offering the coverage for large group plans beginning in 2018.