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Posted at 10:15 AM ET, 01/31/2011

Updated: In a first, Speaker pushes autism bill; some conservatives opposed

By Anita Kumar
Anita Kumar

House Speaker William J. Howell (R) has put his considerable weight behind a bill that would require businesses to provide insurance coverage for children with autism after failing to support similar proposals in past years.

Howell's position, which all but ensures the bill will pass the General Assembly this year, has upset some members of his caucus, who question supporting a new mandate while opposing the health care overhaul passed last year.

"Bill Howell has proven once again, that what liberal Democrats cannot accomplish on their own, he will do for them,'' said Ben Marchi, state director for Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group that has criticized Howell in the past for his support of a statewide smoking ban, the 2004 tax increase and a 2007 transportation package. "This big government mandate is being pushed by the same Speaker who gave us the largest tax increase in Virginia history, along with the nanny government smoking ban and transportation catastrophe HB3202. Our job creating businesses and the taxpayers of Virginia shouldn't be forced to pay for something that isn't a core function of government."

The speaker's chief of staff Paul Nardo attended last week's meeting of Commerce and Labor Committee, where the autism bill was being considered, and was seen speaking to the most critical Republican -- Del. Jackson Miller of Prince William -- during the debate. Miller later said he was merely asking Nardo a procedural question about when the bill was filed.

The usually-business friendly committee passed a pair of autism bills introduced by Republican Dels. Tag Greason of Loudoun and Tim Hugo of Fairfax -- 16 to 6. Four Republicans voted against the bill -- Dels. Kathry Byron, Ben Cline, Danny Marshall and Miller.

"Guess I have to run for the Senate now,'' Miller quipped after he voted no.

Updated, 11:30 a.m. Howell said in an interview that this year's bill is "significantly different" than past versions and he supported it because he thought it was a "very reasonable approach." He said he has not been touched by autism personally in his life, but everyone knows families that have been touched by it knows someone who has autism.

"I had gotten the opportunity to know the speaker of the House in South Carolina pretty well and South Carolina did a similar bill although not as tightly draw as this,'' Howell said. "They don't have the age restrictions and they don't have the cap and they're finding that it costs them about 84 cents per insurer per month to accomplish that. They're finding the state funds were not that significant -- under $1 million. So it looked like something we could do to reach the core people that really need the help the most without having an undue burden on businesses."

The measure would require health insurers to pay for a specialized therapy known as applied behavioral analysis, as well as occupational, speech and other therapies, for children two to six years old.

The bill would cap annual costs at $35,000 and applies to businesses that employ more than 50 people and are not self-insured. It also covers public employees.

Miller said he opposed the bill because it only applies to some businesses, it would only help a limited number of families and he doesn't believe federal law allows the state to cap annual costs at $35,000.

The entire House will vote on the bill this week. A similar bill sponsored by Sen. Janet Howell (D-Fairfax) is pending in the Democratic-controlled Senate, where the mandate has typically been supported.

The General Assembly has considered autism legislation for more than a decade.

Howell said last week that the bill strikes a balance between the business community and families autistic children.

But despite his comments the Independent Insurance Agents of Virginia, Virginia State Chamber of Commerce, National Federation of Independent Business and the Virginia Association of Health Plans remain opposed.

Supporters say the proposal would cost businesses less than $1 per month per autistic child and would provide medical treatment when it can do the most good. Opponents say it would create a financial burden that businesses can't afford in tough economic times.

By Anita Kumar  | January 31, 2011; 10:15 AM ET
Categories:  Anita Kumar, General Assembly 2011, House of Delegates, State Senate, William Howell  
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Core function of government doesn't include healthcare for it's citizens? Why do Republicans think all government should do is support business, but not help the people?

Posted by: jckdoors | January 31, 2011 11:07 AM | Report abuse

jckdoors Rupubs think that Govt is good when they think/feel it meets their needs,otherwise govt to them is too big and too intrusive.

Posted by: 10bestfan | January 31, 2011 12:20 PM | Report abuse

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