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The Associated Press February 24, 2010, 8:11AM ET

Va. panel kills autism treatment coverage mandate

Legislation that would have required many Virginia employee health care plans to cover a treatment for autistic children died Tuesday under business and insurance industry claims that its costs would hurt business.

Sen. Janet Howell's bill was tabled Tuesday on an unrecorded voice vote by a House Commerce and Labor subcommittee.

The defeat ends a 2010 legislative push by families of children with the neurological disorder to secure coverage for a treatment called applied behavior analysis.

"They were lobbied hard by the insurance and business lobbies not to stand up for children and families," said Mark Llobell of Virginia Beach, grandfather of an autistic child and one of several tearful relatives who consoled one another after the vote.

ABA treatments cost $30,000 a year and up. Many middle-class families forced to pay the costs themselves confront financial ruin.

Virginia is among 35 states that do not compel insurers to cover the ABA treatments, which specialists say are the best hope autistic children have for living a normal life.

Howell, D-Fairfax County, presented the subcommittee members with a photo of her grandson, Bode, a child with autism.

"He's in a good place. He's in Arizona, not Virginia," she said, noting that Arizona mandates insurance coverage of the treatment. "Kids in Virginia shouldn't be treated any more shabbily than those in Arizona."

An actuary who studied likely costs of additional mandated coverage for ABA said the expenses would increase by only 0.2 percent.

Some legislators were troubled that the bill mandated coverage for private employee health plans but excluded state employees until 2015, a concession to a $4 billion shortfall looking for the 2011 and 2012 budgets.

Why were state employees ever excluded, asked Del. Sam Nixon, R-Chesterfield.

"Because we're bankrupt," Howell replied. "We don't have the money right now."

Robert N. Bradshaw Jr., a lobbyist for the Virginia Independent Insurance Agents, used that argument to benefit the opponents.

"Frankly, businesses are at the breaking point," Bradshaw said. "If the state can't afford it today, what makes you think small businesses can."

Del. Jeion Ward, D-Hampton, sought to amend the bill to force it to apply to all private insurers as well as state employees beginning in July 2012. Her motion failed, and the panel subsequently killed the bill.

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