UPDATE: Autism insurance bill unlikely to pass in 2009

Thursday, April 2, 2009 | 4:19 p.m. CDT; updated 11:30 p.m. CDT, Thursday, April 2, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY — Legislation mandating insurance coverage for autistic children suffered a setback Thursday that diminishes its chances of passage this year.

The Republican-led House Rules Committee refused to send the autism bill to the House floor for debate, instead referring it back to its originating committee.

Democrats decried the decision as a bill-killer while noting it occurred on the observance of World Autism Awareness Day.

"So many kids are afflicted with autism that this bill should be a no-brainer," said Rep. Jason Grill, D-Parkville. Instead this vote shows how much pull the insurance industry has with Republican lawmakers, he said.

The legislation is opposed by lobbyists for insurers, who warn it will increase the costs of health insurance premiums for everyone.

In the past two years, six states — Texas, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Florida, South Carolina, Louisiana — passed laws requiring coverage of behavior therapy for autism, which can cost up to $50,000 a year per child.

Parents of autistic children have made several trips to the Capitol this year, pleading for passage of an insurance mandate.

The House Health Care Policy Committee endorsed legislation a month ago requiring group health insurance plans to cover up to $72,000 annually of autism services for children younger than age 11. Insurers would have to cover up to $36,000 annually for people age 11 to 21.

Rules Committee Chairman Michael Parson, R-Bolivar, said his committee sent the bill back partly because of concerns that the annual insurance benefit cap was too high.

Health committee chairman Wayne Cooper, a Republican physician from Osage Beach, said he has agreed to lower the insurance benefit to about $50,000 annually for autistic children age 14 and younger. Cooper contends that change, as well as other concerns, could have been addressed on the House floor.

But House Speaker Ron Richard, R-Joplin, said he wants a consensus on the legislation before bringing it up for debate. Richard suggested he might need to appoint a committee to study the issue before the 2010 legislative session.

"There surely isn't a consensus of providers and hospitals and insurance companies," Richard said. "Our members are pulled by every group."

The Senate gave first-round approval to its own version of an autism insurance mandate last month, but that bill is stuck in the Senate Governmental Accountability and Fiscal Oversight Committee.

Senate Majority Leader Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, said the bill's prospects do not appear good. House Majority Leader Steven Tilley, R-Perryville, acknowledged that chances for the House bill also are slim, because of backlog of bills in front of it as the May 15 adjournment date approaches.

"From a practical standpoint, if your House bill isn't to the Senate in the next week or so, the odds of it getting done are not very good," Tilley said.

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